OAKLEY -- The little town that could -- and did -- celebrated two Independence Days this month, one of them marking the 15 years that have passed since Oakley became a city.

As is the case of any community that aspires to cityhood, it was the desire for self-determination that led nearly 77 percent of Oakley voters in the winter of 1998 to opt for incorporation.

And on July 1, 1999, after years of effort by those who maintained that residents weren't getting their money's worth from the services the county was providing, Oakley became the master of its own destiny.

OAKLEY -- The little town that could -- and did -- celebrated two Independence Days this month, one of them marking the 15 years that have passed since Oakley became a city.

Ravioli the Clown entertains a group of kids who came with their families tocelebrate Oakley’s 15th anniversary of its incorporation at Freedom High
Ravioli the Clown entertains a group of kids who came with their families tocelebrate Oakley's 15th anniversary of its incorporation at Freedom High School in Oakley, Calif., on Saturday, July 5, 2014. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

As is the case of any community that aspires to cityhood, it was the desire for self-determination that led nearly 77 percent of Oakley voters in the winter of 1998 to opt for incorporation.

And on July 1, 1999, after years of effort by those who maintained that residents weren't getting their money's worth from the services the county was providing, Oakley became the master of its own destiny.

Oakley City Councilman Kevin Romick recalls the council-elect gathering in a cramped backroom at the sheriff's substation to decide how the new city would operate.

On hot summer evenings, they'd open a back door to cool off only to be infested with grasshoppers and other insects from the adjoining field.

The public was eager to voice its opinions at workshops as the council crafted the city's first general plan, a document describing its vision for Oakley that included maps showing the location of homes and commercial development.

"We would have literally hundreds of people show up," Romick said.

The first City Hall was a former hair salon staffed with six employees.

And the work in setting up a new government, devising a 10-year budget forecast, and learning about municipal finance and law -- there was so much to do.

In the beginning, the city had just one park.

Peach orchards lined Empire Avenue and Laurel Road, apple trees grew near Freedom High School, and the narrow roads reflected that rural character.

The downtown didn't have a single traffic light; the first was installed at Main Street and O'Hara Avenue a few years later.

And upgrading was a challenge because money was tight in those early days.

"It was an ongoing struggle for a number of years to get resources to fix problems," said Brad Nix, one of the five original council members.

Nonetheless, as Oakley gradually weaned itself from county services, it exercised its new authority to raise developer fees, a source of revenue to provide additional services and amenities.

Among them was a larger police presence, which had motivated some residents to fight for cityhood.

"If we weren't a city I'd hate to say what (Oakley) would be like (today)," said Dale Smith, who served as treasurer on the incorporation committee.

He had noticed a disparity in the crime rate between unincorporated areas and surrounding cities when he was living in Orange County, and Smith didn't want the same to happen to Oakley.

Now, there was money to pay the sheriff's office for added protection; instead of one or two deputies patrolling multiple communities in far East County, Oakley had 15 officers dedicated to preserving its safety.

Over the past 15 years the city's population has grown from approximately 25,600 to just over 38,000 residents today.

There are now 30 city-owned parks to enjoy, and navigating the town has become easier.

Streets are wider, and where students walking to school once shared the road with traffic there are now more sidewalks.

Almond and walnut groves have given way to housing tracts and strip malls, although the city is working on ways to preserve some of Oakley's vineyards.

The city has a more inclusive feel to it these days, adds Smith, who credits the shift from small-town cliquishness to the community events that City Hall organizes.

Still, the youngest of the 19 cities in Contra Costa County, Oakley has plenty of growing to do before it reaches its estimated build out population of 70,000.

Romick and others dream of attracting retailers that don't yet have a presence in the city and the sales tax revenue they represent.

Similarly, they talk of wooing businesses in the high-tech and light industrial sectors that would bring well-paying jobs with them.

But looking back on the strides Oakley has made so far, Nix is content.

"We now look much more like a city than we did," he said.

"The roads are far better, we have many parks that we didn't have, we have youth programs, we have a police department, a City Hall."

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee

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