Why are some communities in Contra Costa County unincorporated?

When we first bought our little piece of heaven out here in Contra Costa County, I’d never heard of “unincorporated” communities. Our city address was Walnut Creek and I just assumed that we were Walnut Creek residents. As it turns out, we are not!

Case in point: In 2019, some of my neighbors asked the county to consider changing the mailing addresses to Lafayette in the parts of Saranap covered by the Lafayette School District. After years of meetings and one successful appeal, the change was granted. And just like that, my mailing address works as both Walnut Creek, CA and Lafayette, CA. And yet we technically “belong” to neither city.

Here’s the text from the county website.

Any change on the property tax roll associating your property with Lafayette, rather than Walnut Creek, will be in name only. It will not move your property into the City of Lafayette and the Zip Code of your property will remain the same.  Mail will continue to be sorted at the Walnut Creek Post Office and continue to be recognized by the United States Postal Service (USPS) when addressed as either “Walnut Creek” or “Lafayette.”

In other words, we’re still unincorporated. We belong to neither Walnut Creek nor Lafayette. When we call the police, we’re routed to the county Sheriff. The county handles our building permit databases. All that usual stuff you go to City Hall for is handled for us at the county level. My closest elected official is a County Supervisor.

I haven’t run into any issues with this setup. In fact it’s been beneficial. We get all the benefits of living close to Lafayette and Walnut Creek without dealing with the red tape or paying extra taxes. It feels a bit like cheating.

So this begs the question: Why do unincorporated areas exist? Why aren’t we annexed by Walnut Creek, or Lafayette, or heck, even Alamo (Alamo is also unincorporated!) And why doesn’t Saranap, all 5,000 of us, form a town, elect a mayor and town council, and set our own rules?

To answer these questions, let’s start with the fictional history of a fictional little town.

People settle in an area. What do you need when you form a town? A store, a church, and a post office, pretty much. The people who live closest to the downtown will tend to be most involved in it. They’ll organize, handle disputes, and discuss plans for growth and security. In essence, they form a government and a police force. That’s real work, and real work needs real pay. Who’s going to fund all this?

The people who live further from the downtown don’t want to be bothered. They don’t need the town services. They carve their own roads and build their own fences. The shotgun by the door is all the police force they need. They only want to deal with the grocer, the postman, and the priest, so they opt out of everything else. They become unincorporated. Meanwhile, the homes closer to town form a city, collect taxes, and together deal with all the local politics (“Old Man Jones hacked the head off Mr. Johnson’s rooster for waking him up at 5am after a heavy night of drinking…”)

However, at least in California, every unincorporated area still belongs to a county. You can bypass the town or city, but you can’t bypass the county. This family with the shotgun by the door still has a Supervisor and county rules to deal with. They also have to deal with special districts. There are schools, sewage, water pipes, roads, and trash collection to pay for. Being unincorporated is a far cry from being “off the grid.” It simply avoids the tip of the spear in local government.

Let’s take this back to Saranap. Like I said, we’re right between Lafayette and Walnut Creek. We have no side walks or street lamps. Like many suburbs, we were once part of a big ranch, and it eventually was carved up into hundreds of little parcels. It kept its semi-rural flavor, though, and has remained in its in-between state for the last seventy-five years.

It remained so because it’s too expensive for Saranap to be annexed to Lafayette or Walnut Creek. The neighborhood would be out of compliance with the current planning codes of both cities. We have no streetlights and nobody wants to pay to put them in. We have no sidewalks, and nobody wants to give up their yards to accommodate them. With no urgency or desire from either the residents or surrounding cities annex, Saranap is probably just gonna Saranap for the long run.

So if Saranap is gonna Saranap, why don’t we form our own government? The other idea of incorporating itself is an interesting one. To get a glimpse of how this might work, we can turn to the Town of Moraga.

Moraga is only 10 square miles and has a population of 16,000, about three times the population of Saranap. It incorporated in 1974 when the three towns of Moraga Town, Rheem, and Rheem Valley decided to merge in order to prevent overdevelopment.

Today, Saranap could do this by petitioning our Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO. These commissions are unique to California, which has 58 of them, and they are able to form and dissolve cities within their jurisdiction. To start a new city, the journey begins here.

But first, we must ask the question: Why would anyone want to form a new city? To answer this, let’s look at what city does versus what a county does.

A city can:

  • Handle law enforcement and fire protection
  • Set planning rules (land, zoning, building inspections)
  • Manage public works like streetlights, potholes, drainage, water and sewer, etc
  • Make public services like libraries and parks
  • Deal with animal control

A county will typically:

  • Handle welfare and child protection
  • Manage the criminal justice system, like courts and jails
  • Handle elections
  • Collect and distribute taxes
  • Do other health services
  • Manage regional parks

So, if the residents of Saranap felt potholes were going unfixed, buildings were in shambles, and the community wasn’t served by libraries and parks, we could incorporate and deal with these issues ourselves! But where would this money come from? The share of revenue that went to the county, of course! But what about the stuff that the county will still handle for us? We’d still have to pay for it!

And this is what the bulk of the incorporation documentation deals with: the comprehensive fiscal analysis. It sounds so messy, the LAFCOs give it its own acronym: the CFA.

The LAFCO’s main responsibility is to ensure that the county isn’t worse off by the incorporation and that the new city is fiscally sound. If the analysis is sound and the voters approve it, the new city is born. For more on how it works, this Primer by the CA Governor’s Office of Planning and Research was really helpful.

1 thought on “Why are some communities in Contra Costa County unincorporated?”

  1. Hi neighbor! I just want to thank you for writing this post! We also moved to the Saranap area the end of 2022 and didn’t know much about this unincorporated concept. I did a bunch of research since moving over and your post is probably the best summary I’ve seen and very informative. I do love how much easier it is to get permits because we are unincorporated and the only thing I wish we have is sidewalks, but honestly, it’s not too bad at all now!

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