Sebastopol-area neighborhood takes potholes into own hands as county road funds stretch thin

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For 30 years, Barry Anderson has made a hobby of fixing severe potholes that regularly form outside his Cunningham Road home south of Sebastopol, helping manage a problem road that hasn’t seen significant investment from the county for at least that long.

“That big one right there in front … was a foot deep,” Anderson said, pointing to a hole he filled near the edge of the driveway of his ranch-style home, which he’s owned since the early 1960s. “This one kept getting deeper and deeper. And there’s another two beyond there that I filled.”

Sonoma County’s Transportation & Public Works department compiles annually a list of resident requests for connector streets and thoroughfares to be repaved.

With more than 2,700 miles, the county has the second largest road network in the Bay Area. However, the state delivers gas tax dollars based on registered vehicles rather than the number of roads, which the department says leaves the county short on funds to fix roads.

The county spent a total of $17.4 million in 2018 as part of its pavement and maintenance program, department spokesman Dan Virkstis said. That resulted in nearly 100 miles of repaved roadway, which was a record for Sonoma County. Between state gas tax dollars and ongoing funding the Board of Supervisors has dedicated toward pavement upkeep, the county expects to spend another $14.7 million in 2019.

However, some neighborhoods will be left without needed road repairs for extended periods, and residents will have little option unless they feel the need to take it upon themselves to fill the holes.

Anderson, a 78-year-old retired road construction foreman, has for the last five years been slowed by a bum hip, and his wife, Shirley, 75, occasionally has asked him to stop taking the sack of filler and shovel out into the street. Now, he and his next-door neighbor, a commercial contractor, take turns patching the most egregious ruts on the 1/3-mile stretch between Bloomfield and Schaeffer roads. With the wet weather and the persistent damage from swelling local traffic, including heavy-duty delivery trucks traveling to and from a nearby dairy and orchards, it’s all they can do to keep the two-lane byway drivable.

They’re far from the only people in the neighborhood dealing with a minefield of craters that occasionally get patched, a bandage some say manages to actually keep lead-foot drivers at or below the posted 35 mph limit.

On Cunningham Road, a makeshift sign was posted on a nearby power pole warning drivers of a primitive road. A local asphalt vigilante group also visited the street last month to tag their skull logo and circle the most serious divots with orange paint.

Hoping to shame the county into taking action, another resident left on the blacktop a message in large white letters: PAVEMENT ENDS AHEAD.

“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle of patches,” said Don Herold, 66, who for 26 years has frequently taken the route to his Schaeffer Road home. “You’re trying to drive and see where it’s flat, but especially when it’s wet, you can’t see where the potholes are. It’s dark on dark and people are swerving all over, which gets to be dangerous with people walking their dogs and things like that.”

The county public works department acknowledged the rural road, which saw 670 vehicles a day in a 2015 traffic count, has not received major attention since the Clinton administration, maybe even longer. The electronic records don’t go further back.

Anderson said he’s never known the street to have been repaved.

Hearing repeated complaints, the county recently added Cunningham Road to its summer 2020 list of roads to be considered for repaving. It also sent out last week a maintenance crew to patch the holes.

Rainstorms typically wash the temporary repairs away, residents say, and then it’s back to square one and the irksome cycle starts anew.

County public works officials call dispatching a patch crew “substantial” and welcome neighborhood requests to initiate such year-round corrective work. However, Virkstis said the issue ultimately comes down to a group of criteria, including the condition, location and type and amount of use, when deciding which roads are approved for a full overhaul.

“When people call with, ‘Why isn’t my road paved, you haven’t done anything in 30 years,’ it’s good information for people to understand and the context around the process, but also the volume of requests, concerns and then the need,” Virkstis said. “Folks are rightly frustrated. We’re also in a position where we have to make tough decisions around priorities.”

In 2014, the county launched a “worst-first program,” providing a fund of $1 million toward roads that don’t meet the typical criteria for being addressed but also are in dire shape.

Transportation & Public Works Director Johannes Hoevertsz dubbed it “the social justice” aspect of the department, but said the need there also outpaces the available money. He was unsure if Cunningham Road is a candidate roadway.

“They have been slowly chipping away at it and getting to the ones that they can,” Hoevertsz said. “There are some really bad ones. So we use the $1 million really quick.”

The lack of money is a contributing factor for why Sonoma County has the worst pothole problem in the Bay Area, according to report released last year by the region’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Through tens of millions of dollars in investment the past few years, the county has made incremental gains, but it continues to have some of the lowest grades for road conditions, as well as the highest deferred maintenance costs for the nine-county area.

For the past two years, the Pothole Bandits — Peter Babcock, 72, and Lauren Roy, 67 — have taken it upon themselves to ride a motorcycle and highlight in orange spray paint distressed roads around the county, helping motorists navigate the most troubled stretches. They said Cunningham Road is among the worst they’ve encountered.

“Look at it — it’s riddled,” said Babcock. “It looks like a bombing run through here. This is a brutal road.”

The Santa Rosa couple post photos of their handiwork on Facebook and take requests for where they should travel next. They said roughly 60 percent of the inquiries come for west county cities, including Sebastopol.

The county plans to conduct an updated traffic count on Cunningham Road and have results by next month because residents believe the number of vehicles that travel on the road daily is greater than reported. The data will help the public works department decide when — if ever — the old farm road could finally see asphalt pavers come through.

If the answer is no, it’ll be up to nearby homeowners to continue filing complaints with the county and painting up the pockmarks to get patch crews back out, or for others, like Anderson, to keep filling the holes themselves.

“I don’t get around like I used to anymore,” said Anderson. “But people come by when I’m out there and (say) thank you. It’s satisfaction. I don’t mind the $7, $8 or $9 for the sacks, but why do we pay gas tax? They can’t upkeep the county. That’s what burns me.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at

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