Local News

Monday, Apr 14 2014 06:40 PM

Construction of water tank has neighbors feeling powerless

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    LInda Burton looks at the large water tank from her backyard patio and has many concerns about it.

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  2. 2 of 3

    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Linda Burton has many concerns about the large water tank built in the water company's yard behind her house, just over her backyard fence.

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    By Steven Mayer/ The Californian

    When a local water company built a big red water tank on the other side of Linda Burton's backyard fence, she began to worry about her view, her property values and her family's safety should the tank rupture as a result of an earthquake or other natural or human-caused disaster.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Linda Burton has lived for two decades in a quiet neighborhood in northwest Bakersfield, where the lawns are green, the neighbors are friendly and the homes are in fine repair.

It's not perfect, of course, but it's her version of the American Dream.

Now she believes that dream is being threatened and she's "filled with trepidation."

In the neighborhood near Old Farm Road, north of Rosedale Highway, Vaughn Water Co., which supplies water to thousands of homeowners in the area, is building a half-million-gallon water storage tank on the other side of Burton's backyard fence.

She has named it the Big Red Monster.

"It's unsightly, it's unfair," she said, standing in her back yard, the rust-colored industrial structure looming behind her.

"I don't know what it's going to do to my resale value."

The new water tank, which Vaughn Water Co. General Manager Van Grayer says is needed, especially in times of drought, to maintain a consistent water supply to the city's northwest, is 24 feet tall and 60 feet in diameter.

According to the city of Bakersfield's Planning Department staff report, the unfinished tank and booster pump station will also include a 10-foot-tall, 250-square-foot metal building, three above-ground booster pumps and security lights.

The 500,000 gallons of water that will eventually fill the tank will be pumped from an off-site source, Grayer said. The water will likely be needed during peak-use hours.

When groundwater levels drop, as they have been during the valley's three-year drought, production capacity of water wells also falls, Grayer said. The tank will have water available on days when demand might otherwise outstrip supply.

"It wasn't originally planned," he said of the water tank's construction. "It was a contingency."

The construction of domestic water wells and associated pump equipment are permitted "by-right" in all of the city's residential zones. However, water storage tanks like Vaughn's require the approval of a conditional use permit, which city planners approved in June.

But Josh Willingham, whose home also backs up to the water tank, said he and his family were travelling in Oregon when the planning meeting was held last June. While Willingham and other nearby residents have joined Burton in opposing the construction, Burton was alone in her opposition during the 30-day public comment period last year.

It may be a cautionary tale for homeowners. When city residents don't remain informed and get involved early, they may have little influence over issues that significantly affect them.

However, Willingham said he did look into the plan. He said city staff suggested he look at another water tank not far from the neighborhood. The current project would look like that one.

But once the new tank began going up, Willingham said he realized the tank adjacent to his back yard was larger than the example he was advised to explore. The new tank now dominated the view in his back yard.

Like Burton, he has concerns about noise, lighting and safety. But most importantly, he said, the view of a massive industrial structure in a residential neighborhood will adversely impact his family's quality of life and the value of their home.

Kern County Supervisor David Couch, who represents Burton's neighborhood, could not be reached for comment Monday. However, his staff responded in an email.

"Supervisor Couch is hopeful the Vaughn Water District will continue to work with these residents to address their concerns. It is our understanding there are landscaping requirements which have not been installed yet. We are encouraged that the district will be meeting with residents to discuss additional landscaping such as larger trees and the possibility of painting the water tank a more neutral color."

Ryan Shultz, Couch's field representative, forwarded to Burton a letter from Bakersfield Planning Director Jim Eggert, who noted that Burton was the only one who officially objected to the plan when it was being considered by planners.

"The tank is limited to a height of 24 feet" while residential zoning allows water tanks up to 35 feet, Eggert wrote. "Vaughn is required to replace the wood/chain link fencing with a masonry block wall along the property line of the residents (minimum 6 feet tall) ... Additionally, they will be planting cypress trees every 10 feet to screen the tank."

However, the letter doesn't mention that the city requires the trees to be just six feet in height, one-quarter the height of the tank.

Burton's response was terse.

"Certainly Vaughn Water had the right to build on the property -- but it should not infringe on our safety, quality of life or investment. Don't you agree?" she replied in an email. "It was my hope by contacting Supervisor Couch that he could help protect our rights as citizens, taxpayers and property owners."

Reached Monday, Grayer said Vaughn Water wants to be a good neighbor. While any substantive changes to the permit would require his board's approval, he said he is willing to go beyond the mitigation measures required by the permit. Purchasing taller trees is a strong possibility, he said. And mitigating any nuissance created by light or noise is not off the table.

But for some residents who now have a water tank for a neighbor, mitigation may be too little, too late. They want the tank gone.

"This house is my future," Burton said. "What am I going to do now?"

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