Bakersfield to consider loosening parking restrictions downtown to spur development

In the city of Bakersfield’s ever-evolving quest to revitalize its downtown, local officials are considering loosening parking restrictions for developers in an attempt to bring more people to the city’s main hub.

A rule would get rid of the requirement that developers add parking when buildings undergo changes of use.

The change is targeted at the many downtown buildings that are underused or are plainly empty. Councilmember Bob Smith, who requested the city look into the parking rule, believes loosening the restrictions could allow more businesses to open downtown.

“There’s lots of opportunities,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of body shops (downtown). What if they want to get changed to a restaurant or some kind of entertainment spaces?”

Currently, if a developer wants to change the designated use of a building from, say, a warehouse to a restaurant, he or she must add parking spaces.

City regulations stipulate that a certain amount of parking slots must be provided for buildings downtown, and different types of buildings require different amounts of spaces. Because restaurants typically attract more people than warehouses, the city requires more parking spots for buildings that contain restaurants than warehouses.

Advocates of the plan say developers have not been converting warehouses and other downtown buildings into restaurants or entertainment venues because they cannot add the required parking.

“I think it will change the perception if the city encourages the renovation of existing buildings, and doesn’t require parking,” said local developer Austin Smith, who is Bob Smith’s son. “I think it will make people take notice and be more serious about renovating those properties than they might have been if the city wasn’t supportive of it.”

The rule change would only impact an area known as the Central District, roughly outlined by Golden State Avenue, California Avenue, F Street and V Street.

The Planning Commission voted on Thursday to recommend the change to the City Council.

At the meeting, Planning Director Kevin Coyle said the developer of a building that would become Citizens Business Bank on 17th Street had wanted to build a restaurant, but hadn’t been able to move forward because of the parking requirements.

Instead, the developer built the bank, which serves the customers of that particular institution, but doesn’t forward the city’s goals of bringing more life downtown.

“We can alleviate situations like this from happening in the future, and have more redevelopment in the downtown,” Coyle said during the meeting, “attracting more people, and keeping more people downtown.”

For Bakersfield residents who claim it is already too difficult to park downtown, Councilmember Smith counters with a recent parking study that showed the Central District had enough parking.

The planning director already has the ability to waive parking requirements for new restaurants that are less than 3,000 square feet. The 18hundred, a recently-built downtown restaurant, took advantage of this stipulation to open in an old bank on Chester Avenue.

While the old Bakersfield tradition of parking directly in front of downtown businesses to shop or eat may be on the outs, by allowing the same parking stipulation for all downtown buildings, some in the city hope more restaurants like The 18hundred will choose to move downtown.

The City Council will consider the issue at the Wednesday meeting.

Air pollution officials advise caution due to potential wind, dust

The potential for blowing dust as a result of gusty winds has prompted local air pollution officials to issue a health cautionary statement, effective Saturday evening through Sunday evening for several San Joaquin Valley counties, including Kern.

According to a news release from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, northwesterly onshore flow will strengthen through Sunday evening as the weather pattern over the region transitions from low pressure to high pressure. As a result, winds will increase across the San Joaquin Valley, especially in the northern and western portions of the valley.

The windy conditions will cause localized blowing dust in areas where soils are exceptionally dry and create unhealthy concentrations of particulate matter 10 microns and smaller, known as PM10.

Exposure to particulate pollution, the air district said, can cause serious health problems, aggravate lung disease, trigger asthma attacks and bronchitis, and increase risk of respiratory infections.

Where conditions warrant, people with heart or lung disease should follow their doctors’ advice for dealing with episodes of particulate exposure. Additionally, older adults and children should avoid prolonged exposure or heavy exertion, depending on their local conditions.

For more information, visit www.valleyair.org or call the local air district office at 392-5500.

County vows Rathbun branch library in Oildale will reopen — better than ever

Not everyone who lives north of the river has the disposable income to buy new books. Not everyone in Oildale has a connected computer and printer in the home.

So when the Kern County Rathbun Branch Library on China Grade Loop in Oildale unceremoniously closed its doors “temporarily” last spring, some families suffered the loss more than others.

Still others thought it might have closed permanently.

“I live nearby and I drive by several times a day,” said Donna Wolfe, president of the Friends of the Kern County Library’s Rathbun chapter, a volunteer organization that, according to its website, supports quality library service and resources for all throughout Kern County.

“I have not seen any activity, any work going on, for some time,” Wolfe said. “We thought it might be closed permanently.”

That’s not happening, said Geoffrey Hill, the county’s chief general services officer. It will take some time to complete, Hill said, but the Rathbun will reopen next year better and more modern.

The Californian reached out to Hill for answers. This is what he said:

The branch was closed on May 30 because of a problem with water damage and mold, he said.

The interior surfaces have been removed, including wall coverings, carpet, ceiling tiles, and cabinetry.

“We are taking this opportunity to work with the library to improve the library building and improve the patron experience,” Hill said. “We are working with library staff to provide family friendly spaces and better work flow for the staff.”

But when is it expected to reopen?

“Our current target for reopening the library is February,” Hill said. “The demolition and abatement is complete. We are finalizing design drawings for the construction and restoration of the library interior.”

The cost of the already completed demolition and abatement ran about $260,000. Estimates for future improvements are coming in at about $400,000.

The problem of water damage is not new, Hill said. But when it was decided repairs could wait no longer, the goal was not simply to patch up the problem.

“We’re trying to make the library better,” Hill said. “Better and certainly more modern than it’s ever been.”

Like Wolfe, Darleen Jehnsen is skeptical. As vice president of the Friends umbrella group that includes all the Friends of the Library chapters, Jehnsen said “it’s a very long time for the library to be closed.”

Information about the status of the Rathbun Branch has been hard to come by, said Wolfe, who has volunteered with Friends for some 50 years.

Meanwhile, a number of homeless individuals have set up a kind of encampment outside the Rathbun Branch.

“We are always concerned with the homeless,” Hill said. “We are working with our park rangers to assist in minimizing the impact during the construction and restoration.”

Wolfe is taking a wait-and-see approach. But she’s excited by the promise of a nicer, better library.

“I’m very loyal to the Rathbun Branch. I’m loyal to all of our libraries,” she said. “But my heart is here. I can’t wait to see it reopen.”

New oil leaks surface at Chevron operation near McKittrick

A pair of oil leaks that opened up last weekend near McKittrick are the latest indications of the challenges facing Chevron as it works to come into compliance with recent state rules prohibiting uncontrolled releases of crude and water known as surface expressions.

One day after the company announced it had finished cleaning up a months-long, nearly 1.4 million-gallon leak in the Cymric Oil field, a small leak appeared Saturday not far away. A second, larger one about 340 feet away became evident the next day.

State records show the leak that began Sunday, initially described as “very active, with high energy steam and fluid,” released nearly 2,000 barrels of oily fluid, including 232 barrels (9,744 gallons) of crude.

The fluid flowed into a dry stream bed, where damming was put into place and a contractor was hired to remove it, according to a state report. It added that the cause of the release was under investigation.

Surface expressions like this have occurred repeatedly in the history of Kern oil production but have been banned in California since April 1.

Chevron asserted in an email Thursday that last weekend’s “seeps” may be related to its ongoing efforts to fix a surface expression about 3,200 feet away that has continued since 2003.

“This continues to alter the distribution of energy in the reservoir and may lead to reactivations or new flow locations in the near term, such as the (Saturday) and (Sunday) events,” Chevron spokeswoman Patricia “Patty” Canessa wrote.

She said the company is reducing the amount of steam being injected into the reservoir and “balancing” fluid withdrawal. She noted that both releases are contained and cleanup is underway.

State regulators, dissatisfied with the company’s explanations of what has caused recent surface expressions in the Cymric, have placed the entire oil field under technical scrutiny and ordered Chevron to come up with a plan to keep releases from recurring there.

Detailed information from Chevron is due to the state by Dec. 13, including a surface-expression monitoring and prevention plan. As part of that, the company was asked to map out cracks, fissures and sink holes related to the company’s work in the area, plus five years’ worth of well pressure data.

Chevron has filed an appeal to a $2.7 million fine the state levied against the company as punishment for the months-long surface expression that started in mid-May.

State considers new restrictions on use of toxic pesticide widely used in Kern

Another pesticide commonly used in Kern County agriculture has come under close scrutiny by state regulators after air monitoring equipment in Shafter and Parlier detected surprisingly high concentrations of the cancer-causing chemical last year.

The controversial fumigant, 1,3-dichloropropene, known simply as 1,3-D, is the subject of a workshop being hosted Thursday in Sacramento by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, which is looking at ways to reduce human-health risks associated with the chemical’s use.

The pesticide, which also goes by the brand name Telone, is usually injected into soil or applied through drip irrigation prior to planting nut trees, grapes and other plants. The goal is to control insects and worms that can damage crops. The state says growers in the Central Valley and the Central Coast go through about 13 million pounds of the chemical yearly.

The problem is that, depending on how it’s used, the chemical can turn into a gas and rise from the soil, potentially leading to its inhalation by people nearby who are unaware of the pesticide’s presence.

“We are holding the workshop (Thursday) because we want to get input from growers on if/how to strengthen the existing protections for people from short-term exposures to this chemical. Especially people applying it or working close to where it is applied,” DPR spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe wrote in an email Wednesday.

No decisions are expected to be made at the workshop on how to regulate the pesticide. Fadipe said the focus will be on preventing effects from short-term exposure, adding that the state addressed mitigation measures for long-term exposure in 2016. Any new rules on 1,3-D’s use probably wouldn’t be put in place until next year, she added.

Kern Ag Commissioner Glenn Fankhauser said any new restrictions imposed by the state have the potential to raise growers’ costs, either by limiting how much acreage they can treat at once or by putting parts of some fields off-limits for the pesticide.

Renewed scrutiny of 1,3-D has come on the heels of last week’s announcement that state regulators have reached an agreement with chemical manufacturers to phase out use of the effective but highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos in California by the end of next year.

Like chlorpyrifos, 1,3-D serves to protect some of Kern’s top-selling crops but has come under criticism by environmental justice groups who see it as a threat to people living near local ag fields.

Byanka Santoyo, an Arvin-based community organizer with the advocacy group Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, said she and several other Kern County residents will attend the workshop. She said they will push to eliminate use of the chemical altogether, leaving no room for exceptions by county ag commissioners.

“We need to look at what’s happening for our house, for our children,” she said.

State rules already limit how much of the chemical can be applied in a community every year, as a way of limiting long-term exposure. Among the options expected to be discussed at the workshop to address short-term exposure are establishment of minimum buffers between buildings and fields treated with 1,3-D, as well as possibly mandating the use of tarps.

Growers’ preferred fumigant used to be methyl bromide, a highly toxic chemical mostly phased out of use in U.S. agriculture as part of an international agreement to protect the earth’s ozone layer.

The state’s almond industry has invested millions of dollars researching options for controlling soil pests, said Gabriele Ludwig, director of sustainability and environmental affairs for the Almond Board of California, which she said will be represented at Thursday’s workshop.

Whether the industry will be able to live with whatever new restrictions the state imposes on the use of 1,3-D “depends on the mitigation efforts (the DPR) puts in place, the extent of them and so forth,” Ludwig said.

She termed Thursday’s workshop “the start of a conversation.”

Vandal shoots, destroys seven windows at Southwest branch library

Who would shoot the windows out at a county library, where knowledge and dreams are still free for the borrowing?

Someone would.

Several windows at the southwest branch of the Kern County Library remained boarded over Tuesday — and others held together with duct tape — after a vandal or vandals apparently used an air rifle earlier this month to damage seven windows at the Ming Avenue branch.

“Police believe it was a BB gun or an air rifle,” said Jasmin LoBasso, a spokeswoman for the county library system.

There’s no estimate yet of the cost to replace the seven tinted windows, but some of them appear to be 5-feet to 6-feet square.

“We’re really committed to keeping this space safe,” LoBasso said.

The Ming Avenue location, adjacent to upscale Haggin Oaks and The Marketplace shopping center, not only loans books, but also carries CDs, DVDs and other media offering music, movies, documentaries, audio books and more.

Many on a Facebook page about the incident were outraged, wondering why anyone would do violence against something so good as a public library.

Rafael Moreno, librarian and Southwest branch supervisor, said the gun vandalism happened on Oct. 4, a Friday night, sometime between closing at 5 p.m. and 9:30 or 10 p.m. when the custodial crew arrived.

In order to shoot five windows on the west side of the building, the shooter or shooters would likely have had to enter the parking lot, apparently with the intention to do harm to the building. Two windows on the Ming Avenue side of the building — impossible to hit from the parking lot — were also shattered by air rifle fire, Moreno said.

“They had to come into the parking lot at night,” he said. 

“What really bothers me is that two windows were in the children’s area,” Moreno said.

The area is a place where parents like to let their children relax and just be kids exploring the wonder of literature. And the idea that a child might be cut by a small shard of glass did not sit well with Moreno.

“Everyone was here (the following Saturday morning),” he said, “and we all came together to clean up the area.”

Meanwhile on the Facebook post, someone said despite the senselessness of such an action, we repair, rebuild, fight back — and always the good triumphs.

One can hope.

McFarland High teacher arrested on suspicion of alleged sexual abuse of student, district says

A teacher at McFarland High School has been arrested on suspicion of sexual abuse of a student, according to the school district.

In a letter posted to the McFarland Unified School District Website, Superintendent Aaron Resendez said Elvia Gonzalez was arrested Saturday on suspicion of alleged sexual abuse, after a student showed a principal incriminating, inappropriate content on his cell phone.

“The district immediately implemented its mandated reporting protocol, contacted the parents, and notified the McFarland Police,” Resendez wrote in the letter.

Gonzalez has been placed on administrative leave and removed from contact with students, the letter said.

“Sadly, this case has been particularly devastating to me since the accused teacher is a relative of mine and others within the McFarland educational community,” Resendez wrote.

He said he had directed the district’s legal counsel to assume the lead role in conducting an independent investigation.

Anyone with information relating to this case is asked to contact the McFarland Police Department at 792-2121.

STEVE FLORES: Family Halloween Movie Night is a scream

Is it a tool of the devil, a meaningless family game or mental wormhole between the dead and the living? The Halloween season is the perfect time to ask anyone who has touched or been touched by, what some people claim to be, the mystical powers of the Ouija Board. Flicker the lights, cue the smog machine and listen for Vincent Price laughing.

We decided to kick-start this Halloween season with a Family Halloween Night Movie. With the help of her sister Brenna and husband Carlos, my daughter Nikki redecorated our home in Haunted Mansion style motif. We thought a movie night would help set the mood for the Halloween season.

Brenna and I screened movies to make sure we selected one that was PG and age appropriate for my granddaughter Ms. Haley (Haley) and grandsons Ry Ry (Ariyon) and “C” (Cameron).

The screening process brought up great conversation between Brenna and me. “What was your favorite scary movie growing up?” we asked each other. On the top of my list is “The Exorcist” with Linda Blair’s possessed spinning head. I must have watched the movie “The Fog” on a cold foggy night because it makes my scariest-of-all-time movie list. “The Fog” is about a mysterious iridescent fog that creeps into a small coastal town bringing vengeful ghost of mariners seeking revenge. If you hear a pounding on your front door on a cold foggy night, don’t, I repeat, don’t answer it.

Brenna’s best horror movie was the original “Halloween” movie. After being locked up in prison for 15 years, Michael Myers escapes on Halloween night and in his gray jumpsuit and hockey-looking mask, hunts his next victims. Her next pick is “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Freddy Krueger, a disfigured midnight slasher, preys on teenagers in their dreams and in their reality.

None of those movies made the “Halloween Family Movie Night” list. Brenna reluctantly agreed with showing our family the PG rated “Ouija” movie. The 2014 supernatural horror film revolves around a group of friends who play with the Ouija Board and pay with their lives. All done in good taste, of course.

I sent out the invitation to my children which read, “Family Halloween Movie Night. Everyone must play. Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

The invite was printed on a Ouija Board invitation.

My adult daughters Nikki and Brenna’s bristled response was swift, stern and direct. Almost in unison they said, “There is no way we are playing with a Ouija Board and there is no way our nephews and nieces are playing with it either!”

I wasn’t going to let anyone play with a Ouija Board in our house, but I did like the fear factor created by the remote possibility of my adult children having to play it.

In case you have never heard of a Ouija Board, you play by sitting around the board with others and placing your fingertips on a teardrop planchette and ask questions. The planchette mystically moves from letter to letter, number to number and yes or no to answer your question. On the board is the alphabet displayed in semi-circles above the numbers 0 – 9. The words “yes” and “no” are on top with the word “good-bye” on the bottom of the board. The planchette has a small window in the middle which you can reportedly hold up and look through it so see the spirits you have summoned.

According to recognized Ouija historian Robert Murch, the board first appeared publicly in 1891 in an advertisement as a “wonderful talking board which magically answered questions about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy.”

Before we played the movie “Ouija,” we explained to the young children never to play with it and how dangerous it could be. The movie received an eight scream rating … which means my grandchildren enjoyed watching their aunt scream at the top of her lungs eight times during the movie.

So is the Ouija Board designed to open the gates of hell, to open communication with wandering ghosts you summoned or designed to just to open your wallet?

Go to your nearest Ouija Board and just ask … just not in my house.

Happy Halloween.

PG&E says power in Kern County restored

A PG&E website says 100 percent of locations in Kern County that were affected by so-called safety power shut-offs have had their power restored.

And a PG&E news release said Saturday that more than 99.5 percent of customers impacted statewide by the Public Safety Power Shutoff that began on Wednesday now have their power restored.

Approximately 738,000 total customers were impacted by the event across 34 counties in PG&E’s service area from Humboldt County on the North Coast to Kern County in the southern valley.

According to the utility, PG&E crews began conducting safety patrols and inspections where power had been turned off. The utility said crews re-energizing the power lines had to ensure transmission and distribution lines were free of damage and safe to energize before power could be restored.

Governor signs bill that aims to close Mesa Verde and private prisons throughout state

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a bill that could lead to the closure of the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield, but the operator of the facility says the law is unconstitutional.

Assembly Bill 32 prohibits the state from renewing contracts with private prisons after Jan. 1, 2020, and phases out such facilities by 2028. It also prohibits the use of immigrant detention facilities within the state.

The state uses two private prisons in McFarland, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds about 400 immigrants at Mesa Verde in Bakersfield, under a contract that is set to expire on March 18.

A third McFarland facility, the Central Valley Modified Community Correctional Facility, closed in September.

“These for-profit prisons do not reflect our values,” Newsom said in a statement, noting the bill fulfilled a vow he made during his inaugural address.

The immigration organization Freedom for Immigrants lauded the bill as a major human rights victory and vowed to help immigrants in custody obtain bonds to be released.

“Closing immigrant prisons is an essential step towards dismantling a system that profits off of abuse and lines the pockets of private prison executives and industry shareholders,” Freedom co-founder Christina Fialho said in a news release. “AB 32 is truly a model for the rest of the nation.”

Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, wrote the bill, saying it sent a powerful message that the state opposed profiteering off the backs of Californians in custody.

The bill passed 65-11 in the Assembly and 33-6 in the Senate, with all Kern County representatives voting against the measure except Sen. Melissa Hurtado, who did not record a vote.

GEO Group Inc., which operates Mesa Verde as well as three other private prisons in McFarland, says it does not think the new bill will hold up in court.

In an email to The Californian, GEO claimed AB 32 ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause, which gives federal law precedence over state law.

The email stated that GEO’s California facilities intensely focus on rehabilitation programs and post-release support services.

“States cannot lawfully pass legislation mandating the closure of federal facilities that displease them on the basis of ideological differences,” a GEO representative said in the email.

The bill is scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, and is expected to cost as much as $133 million, according to a state analysis.

The high price tag comes from the increased cost of housing inmates in public prisons compared to private.

ICE said its legal experts will review a potential court challenge.

If Mesa Verde closes, ICE is expected to move the detainees to other facilities out of the state, which it says will create a burden on family members trying to organize visits.

The overall number of detainees in custody is not likely to be impacted by the closure of detention centers in California.

“Policymakers who strive to make it more difficult to remove dangerous criminal aliens and aim to stop the cooperation of local officials and business partners, harm the very communities whose welfare they have sworn to protect,” ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes said in an email.

Interim McFarland City Manager David Tooley has said the closure of the two remaining facilities operated in McFarland would significantly cut into the city’s budget.

GEO is a large employer in McFarland, and the closure of the two prisons would “ripple” across the community, Tooley has said.