Why Does San Jose Have So Many Urban Islands?

5 min

Bay Curious listener Kristin Seitz was looking at a map of San Jose when she noticed an awful lot of holes. The city's territory isn't one undivided shape, but rather resembles a piece of Swiss cheese.

Seitz wondered: Why are there so many unincorporated "urban islands" in the San Jose area?

To find out, first we went to Jane Power's house. When you stand on her front porch, you'd think you're in San Jose. Walk 10 minutes south and you can be at San Jose City College. Drive a few miles east and you can be in the city's downtown.

But when Power and her neighbors cast their ballots, they don't get to vote for San Jose representatives or ballot measures.

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And when they call for police, it's not the San Jose police that will come.

That's because despite being completely surrounded by San Jose on all sides, Power doesn't live in San Jose.

She lives in the unincorporated island of Burbank.

Jane Power stands in front of her home in Burbank, an unincorporated island in San Jose.
Jane Power stands in front of her home in Burbank, an unincorporated island in San Jose. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

“I like being special and Burbank is special,” says Power, who chairs the Burbank Community Association, a collection of residents who gather to talk about community issues. “There’s a feeling of neighborhood. That's something that a lot of places in the Bay Area just don't have.”

All around San Jose you'll find islands just like Burbank — small communities that are completely surrounded or bordered by San Jose or Campbell, but aren’t actually part of any city at all.

While some of these islands are open land, many look just like any other neighborhood. Nearly 5,000 people live in Central Burbank alone, and they fall under the jurisdiction of Santa Clara County.

 

Henni Kaufman, Jane Power, Pete Sclafani and Ken Colson, members of the Burbank Community Council, stand in front of Power's home in Burbank.
Henni Kaufman, Jane Power, Pete Sclafani and Ken Colson, members of the Burbank Community Association, stand in front of Power's home in Burbank. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

But what is it that Burbank doesn’t have that an incorporated city might?

For one, there are no city taxes. There’s no city government or business tax, and if there’s an issue that might sound like a job for city government, residents call their county supervisor. When someone in Burbank calls 911, the county sheriff responds — not San Jose police.

Burbank’s school district consists of one elementary school with a different enrollment process than schools just a few miles away. Burbank isn't connected to San Jose’s sewer system, so in 1940 they established their own sanitary district.

Burbank residents say they feel removed from the high-rises and tech industries changing San Jose. The small bungalows and Craftsman-style homes built for cannery workers and blue-collar folks leave them with a desire to preserve a way of life that predates the modern definition of Silicon Valley.

“It’s almost like the '50s,” says Henni Kaufman, treasurer of the Burbank Community Association. “I do a lot of yard work and I’m out there and the kids come and talk to me. They ride their bicycles up and down the sidewalk, and neighbors really watch out for one another.”

The former San Jose resident had no idea that she was moving into an unincorporated community when she bought her home in 1984. Now, the difference is clear.

The community feel translates on a political level, too, says Ken Colson, who sits on the board of directors of the Burbank Sanitary District.

“I have the opportunity to do something to improve the quality of the community [because] it’s manageable,” says Colson. “We can get on the phone and call our county supervisor and he has a staff that responds. The city? [That] would be tough.”

A Historic Artifact

Jane Power’s home was one of the first houses built in her subdivision in 1905. The bedrooms have no closets and the street in front of her home is so narrow that you can park on only one side of it. Perhaps it was the perfect width for a horse-drawn carriage, but not enough for the cars of today.

Areas like Burbank developed long before the neighborhoods around them did, says Bill Shoe, the principal planner of the Santa Clara Planning Department. In fact, developers began building the first residential tracts in Burbank as early as 1904. Shoe says these islands are a direct result of the way San Jose expanded.

“They're like a window into the history of urbanization in the county," he says.

After World War II, the suburbanization of San Jose mirrored national trends. Returning veterans, the advent of the car and expanding freeways incentivized the city to expand its borders as a way to grow its tax base.

But this growth wasn't always uniform or rational. Because some land was easier to annex than others, the city would skip over pockets of land to continue its outward growth.

“It resulted in an irregular and dysfunctional set of boundaries," Shoe says.

The pockets of land that got skipped over were often neighborhoods with homes built by those who worked at the canneries or in agriculture before the war -- long before anyone thought about suburbanization.

The Burbank Community Theater
The Burbank Theater on Bascom Avenue opened in 1949. (BVNA)

"It's a reflection of the history," says Shoe. "Of the time when cars were not as predominant, and when people still had horses and carriages."

At their peak, there were likely hundreds of unincorporated islands in Santa Clara County, but the county did not keep documentation of these islands until they launched an island annexation program in the 1990s.

In 2005, the county still had 180 unincorporated areas. Eighty-nine percent of them were smaller than 150 acres. That number has been whittled down to 87 islands that remain today. The largest and most well-known include Burbank, Alum Rock and Cambrian.

Plans to Annex

While there aren’t as many unincorporated urban islands as there once were, the county plans to eventually dissolve them all into neighboring and surrounding cities, says Neelima Palacherla, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission of Santa Clara County.

Palacherla says the county simply wasn’t built to provide services to unincorporated islands. Sometimes, she says, this system gets confusing for both the county and unincorporated residents.

“There could be a lot of confusion for residents who live in an island regarding who provides services to them in an emergency. Who do they call?" says Palacherla.

New residents, like Henni Kaufman, sometimes have no idea they moved into an unincorporated area. Some don't find out until an emergency or an election.

Then there are things like sidewalks. In San Jose, all major developments must have sidewalks. In unincorporated islands, they're simply not required -- though sometimes residents put them in themselves.

The unincorporated island of Burbank.
The unincorporated island of Burbank. (Santa Clara Department of Planning and Development)

"By annexing into a city, they know that they're receiving or will be receiving services from an agency — which is the city — that was created and geared to provide services to their neighborhood and their area, as opposed to the county, which has to provide these services in a very scattered manner," Palacherla says.

But don't expect mass annexation any time soon. There are plenty of obstacles.

"Because of ... just how lengthy [annexation] could be, and how expensive and cumbersome, many of the city's residents and county are not interested in going through this process," Palacherla says.

Annexation is perceived to be so cumbersome, she says, that the county is working on creating a more streamlined process. The traditional process starts with the proposed annexation, then moves onto zoning designations, community meetings for larger areas, and planning commission and city council hearings. Sometimes, in between all of this, there are protests from residents. In other cases, cities simply don’t see any financial benefit to annexation.

The most contentious annexation battle in recent history happened in 2011, when San Jose and the neighboring city of Campbell fought to win over the hearts of 1,000 residents in a 103-acre island known as Cambrian 36.

Cambrian residents had a strong unincorporated neighborhood association that protested annexation at public hearings in San Jose. The city had its eye on the promise of new tax revenue to be generated by the island's annexation. The deal ended in a $1 million settlement between the two cities. Campbell got the island, and San Jose got the money.

San Jose has stepped up its annexation proceedings over the last 10 years, taking over dozens of islands as part of an annexation collaboration between the county and San Jose.

“There might be a time in the near future when it becomes a focus of the cities, but it's hard to predict,” says Shoe.

Burbank residents who want to hold onto their unincorporated status are nervous.

A welcome sign in Burbank.
A welcome sign in Burbank. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra)

"We in the Burbank area are challenged," Colson says. "We’re brainstorming how we can keep some semblance of an identity here and keep this kind of character."

Residents like Jane Power say it's about saving the community from the redevelopment that has changed San Jose.

"We want to keep the unique housing," she says. "We don't want to have it bulldozed down and have another high-rise take up three or four lots where we have single-family housing."

For now, Shoe says it’s unclear when full annexation of the remaining pockets will happen.

Until then, Burbank will remain exactly the way Jane Power likes it: special.

The outline of San Jose reveals several of the islands in Santa Clara County.

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