What does it mean to be unincorporated?

I spent the last ten years doing startups. Startups are all about forming new businesses, launching, incorporating. It wasn’t until after we bought our house in Saranap, a neighborhood tucked between Walnut Creek and Lafayette in the East Bay, that I learned my new home was unincorporated.

Unincorporated? What the heck is that? 

There are 38 million residents in California and each and every one lives in one of our state’s 58 counties. Of those 38 million, 31 million live within city limits. The remaining 7 million live outside of the cities, in unincorporated county land. 

In Contra Costa’s District 2, where I live, the two largest unincorporated neighborhoods are Saranap and Alamo. Like I said, I live in Saranap. It doesn’t feel unincorporated. There’s a 7-11 and a pizza spot within 10 minutes from my door step. We get the same water, electricity, and internet, and we go to the same schools as everyone else. We don’t have streetlights or sidewalks, but I figured that’s a neighborhood planning feature from its origins as a semi-rural community built on land that used to be a large ranch. 

The downsides? Well, there are a few. 

The impact to my political career (yes, let’s start with that) is that I can’t run for city council. I don’t live in Walnut Creek or Lafayette, so I don’t get to be on the council. There are also a few commissions that I can’t officially sit on since I’m not a city slicker. Out here in the boonies my closest public representative is my county supervisor, Candace Andersen. 

It also means that our fire and police support are provided by the county. Walnut Creek police don’t patrol here. If I need the police department, I dial out to the county sheriff. Our water and trash is also chosen at the county level, but I believe Walnut Creek uses the same providers: East Bay MUD and Republic Services. We can still choose from the same group of other utilities as everyone else. 

The benefit is we don’t have to follow the same permitting requirements as Walnut Creek residents. The contractors we’ve worked with on various house projects have all said it’s a lot easier to deal straight with the county on home expansions and remodels. Going through the city is a whole other process and adds to the cost. 

That’s the difference, from what I can tell. I looked up the property tax breakdowns of our house and another house we made an offer on in Walnut Creek proper and don’t see any huge differences. We both pay 1% to the county and have a slew of other special and ad valorem taxes and assessments ranging from BART to schools and hospitals. There might be differences in the way that the tax receipts are distributed at the county level, but I’ll have to dig in further to understand it.  

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