West Sac Story

Behind the ballot measure lie class divisions, competing urban visions and some intriguing personalities

WS-QUAD members (from left) Kimber Goddard, Derek Backus and Gerry Renno check signatures on their “Premier City Initiative” petition. The measure will go before West Sacramento voters in November.

WS-QUAD members (from left) Kimber Goddard, Derek Backus and Gerry Renno check signatures on their “Premier City Initiative” petition. The measure will go before West Sacramento voters in November.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Cradling a petition under his right arm, Kimber Goddard wanted the shoppers going in and out of a Safeway to consider the future of Southport, West Sacramento’s last frontier of development.

He gave them two scenes to choose from: a sprawl of smokestacks and toxic waste dumps permitted by a financially desperate Port of Sacramento, or a boomtown similar to Jack London Square in Oakland, with riverfront parks and shopping destinations along with pollution-free schools and homes.

The latter vision is the “Premier City,” which Goddard and his group, West Sacramento Quality Urbanization and Development (WS-QUAD), want voters to consider in this November’s election. On this July day in the shopping center, Goddard and his 100 comrades had only three days left to finish their drive to collect the 1,400 signatures required to get the issue on the ballot.

Dressed in a gray Hawaiian shirt, shorts and a BYU cap, Goddard approached people like a man with something valuable to sell. “When was the last time you bought a pair of pants in West Sacramento?” was his common question, trying to make his point about the town’s lackluster shopping opportunities.

During the sweltering Saturday afternoon, some shoppers took their time to read WS-QUAD’s land rezoning proposal, while others quickly signed and left. Standing by the main entrance, Goddard kept his distance from two Port of Sacramento workers who handed fliers to the same folks who heard his pitch.

“Excuse me, this is not what he’s saying,” said Charlie Johnson, a warehouse operator and member of the International Longshore-Warehouse Union Local 17. His flier charged, “the ‘Premier City’ puts all the Port land into the area where all industry would be banned. This would make it impossible for the Port to operate.” And it anticipated the loss of “jobs that help working people give their families a future.” Johnson kept a warm smile, while reminiscing with his co-worker about growing up in West Sacramento and working at the port during the ’70s.

“You know, these union guys don’t live here, and are being paid by their union to pass out fliers,” Goddard softly informed me. Johnson overheard the quip and shook his head. “I’ve lived here for 40 years, and I’ve only been paid with this hat!” he said, while holding his ILWU cap. Goddard immediately apologized, but still insisted that the union is bringing in port workers from out of town to campaign against his citizens’ group.

“They say we’re pushing a ‘Kill-the-Port Initiative,’ ” he said with a reassuring smile. “But the truth is that we’re trying to save the port.”

Goddard and WS-QUAD consider themselves more innovators than NIMBYs, those citizens who adopt the “Not in My Back Yard” attitude toward industrial or other unpleasant land uses. Long believing that the port is an economic dead-end street, they want voters to realize the great potential of its vast undeveloped property as a commercial and residential haven, provided it can alter its heavy industrial tradition.

They foresee a nightmare where the port and City Council will let heavy industry expand to within a few feet of neighborhoods and absentmindedly pollute them. Hearing WS-QUAD’s alarm, the port’s unions believe that a small, affluent group is dividing the city and threatening their way of life.

During a downtime in petitioning, Goddard drove to his favorite vantage point in Southport. He parked his BMW near Palamidessi Bridge, which overlooks a 2,000-acre strip of vacant port property that is between the city’s barge canal and thousands of houses.

A mile west of Goddard was the Bridgeway Island development where he and many WS-QUAD members live. During their petition drive, the group organized a “drive-thru” at its main entrance, where more than 100 signatures were received from drivers on their way home to their uniformly tan and gray houses that sit next to wooden skeletons that will become new houses. From some of Bridgeway’s back yards, the port’s silos and warehouses can be seen.

Goddard pulled out a city map that displays the upper portion of Southport entirely covered in red. He does not miss a beat in giving his 12-year-old argument to change that red industrial zone.

“Most of the people who moved here [Southport] were never told by developers that they live right next to heavy industrial property and could soon live next to a toxic waste dump,” he said. Goddard pointed at the buffer zones that separate the houses from the contested land, and remarked they are as narrow as 150 feet. “The cement plant would have been just 2,000 feet away from the school.”

That plant inspired WS-QUAD to draft their rezoning initiative. In April, they lost their battle to have City Council keep the port from letting Kewitt-Pacific build a 60-acre cement pre-casting plant that could have been built near Southport Elementary School. But the political hassle was enough to convince the company to build its three-year project at the Port of Stockton. The struggle convinced WS-QUAD that amending the city’s 15-year-old General Plan was the only solution to prevent future land-use disputes. Hence, the Premier City Initiative was born.

Goddard feels a little déjà vu these days. In 1990, he ran for City Council to support Measure B, which would have banned all new industry from Southport, out of health and safety concerns. Both he and the rezoning proposal narrowly lost. This experience made Goddard and WS-QUAD compromise their view on industry, just a little.

Goddard said the Premier City allows some exceptions for light industry, as long as they follow two conditions: the company recognizes its residential neighborhoods, and prevents hazards that would threaten their health. The initiative’s “citywide zoning policy” is meant to help carry out these standards.

As for the port, Goddard said, “Their jobs aren’t going anywhere. The initiative doesn’t affect any present industrial developments.”

To Goddard, the 40-year-old business center that owns 3,000 acres of land in Southport, and is currently losing profits from the economic downturn, is an outside entity that must be regulated by West Sacramentans.

“The port is not serving the local people with any property or sales taxes,” he argued, while peering up at the port’s enormous white silos on his way back to Safeway. In just three more days, his group would see what some other West Sacramento residents and leaders have to say about the Premier City.

WS-QUAD celebrated at Turner Library with balloons, bags of candy and sparkling cider for everyone who collected the more than 3,500 signatures in just 10 working days. Goddard proposed a toast to this success, and gave prizes to members who went above and beyond, like a bottle of aspirin to WS-QUAD President Derek Backus’ wife, Tammy, for counting all the signatures. He then gave a pair of Groucho Marx glasses as a “union camouflage kit” to two petitioners who were confronted by two ILWU men at Safeway.

It was a happy and confident scene, but an insular one, for WS-QUAD’s urban vision is not necessarily shared by other West Sacramentans.

ILWU representative Everett Burdan stood in front of the port’s cement warehouses that overlook the same barren land that Goddard and WS-QUAD are fighting over, but it looked different to him. It was three days after Goddard’s Turner Library toast, and now, a dozen union families were gathered for a July 3 fireworks show that shot volleys from that land. From Burdan’s vantage point, the entire neighborhood across the barge canal was hidden by a line of trees, except for Southport Elementary.

Instead of envisioning a “Premier City,” Burdan expects to see a big empty lot. “It’s a lot of waterfront land that won’t meet the pipe-dreams that Kimber has,” he remarked. After being greeted by port Executive Director John Sulpizio, Burdan recalled a bus trip he took with Goddard and other local activists to study Jack London Square. He noted that the Port of Oakland loses $2 million a year from the tourist spot.

As a test firework shot above the sunset, Burdan said this community’s working class, particularly the city’s port-supported families, would suffer the brunt of the gentrification that he believes Premier City would create. He sensed that more upscale housing and business areas might raise land values to the point where blue-collar workers could no longer afford to live in town.

Thinking about how Goddard will handle an upcoming City Council meeting, at which the initiative could either be approved or placed on the ballot, Burdan commented, “If you put something out there as the ‘truth,’ and you really don’t know if it will happen, then that’s a lie.”

During the City Council meeting, Burdan stayed with four ILWU workers in the back, while 10 WS-QUAD members sat in the front with Goddard to await the City Council’s decision on the Premier City.

For an hour, members of a task force presented their report on the Premier City’s impacts on West Sacramento. The report itself took over a month to complete and speculated its worst possible results in comparing the initiative to the city’s General Plan.

After analyzing the initiative’s possible effects on Southport, the task force came up with mixed results. They found that the Premier City would certainly meet the General Plan’s goals of creating a diverse area of housing and retail for Southport. However, as more families move into the new neighborhoods, their demands for city services rise. An estimated 1,332-acre boost in housing would bring a $1.6 million jump in service costs, which wouldn’t be completely covered by new property tax revenue.

The most dramatic impact was upon the port and the city’s industry. More than 1,000 potential industrial jobs would be lost, and the port would have a rough time attracting new businesses to its land, due to the Premier City’s land-use restrictions. Southport’s main street, Jefferson Boulevard, would also be clogged with 3,500 vehicles per day.

Clearly, the council was skeptical, of both the measure and Goddard, who had battled with the council before over open-meeting issues. That night, councilmembers quietly gazed at Goddard when he took the public microphone. As if handling a court case, Goddard argued that the “worst-case” analysis was unfair and missed the point of the initiative.

“The keyword is ‘balance,’ and that is unlikely to be found in a worst-case scenario,” he remarked.

When Burdan spoke, he cast the initiative as a “knee-jerk reaction” to the cement plant decision, before concluding that a certain “insincere group” is threatening the livelihood of his workers. “You should ask people about what matters the most: a Target or industrial jobs that pay living wages?” he said.

Once the principal players had spoken, it was the public’s turn. One by one, WS-QUAD members painted bright portraits of their Premier City that included Wal-Marts, book stores and riverside parks, in contrast to the smokestacks of factories that would “endanger our lungs.”

Still, it was no surprise to WS-QUAD that the council rejected outright approval of the initiative. One of the board’s main reasons is they could not approve such a powerful rezoning policy, without placing it on the ballot for their city to decide.

But most councilmembers made clear where they stood on the question. Councilman Jim Cahill declared that WS-QUAD had divided the city and said their 3,600 signatures do not speak for the interests of 30,000 West Sacramentans. He then paid respect to Burdan for “speaking from his heart.”

Mark Montemayor, who serves on both the council and Port Commission, spun a tale about a storybook Ohio community that has riverfront parks and well-funded social services, all thanks to the tax revenue generated by heavy industry. He accused WS-QUAD of class discrimination by denying the city’s non-affluent their potential blue-collar jobs.

“This feels like a platform for a City Council race,” he said, referring to Goddard. “Let’s hope that’s not the case.”

In the end, the council agreed to print the initiative’s full text on the ballot, along with its rebuttal.

Goddard was in high spirits over what comes next. “I’m happy that the initiative will be on the ballot with its full display of facts,” he concluded. “Although the City Council could do a better job in setting the tone for their campaign against it.”

Two days later, he announced his candidacy for City Council.