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Sacramento County Board of Supervisors reverses decades of smart growth planning overnight

Amanda Eaken

Posted February 6, 2013

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When people criticize California for being stuck in the ‘60s, they’re usually talking about hippies and flower power. Yet last week, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors took us in a suburban sprawl time machine back to the 1960s with their approval of the Cordova Hills project.  

Cordova Hills is nothing less than old sprawl wine in a barely new bottle, straight from the days of paving over paradise and having to drive to do anything – shop, go to school, go to work, go to the dry cleaners, you get the idea. Proposing to build up to 8,000 new housing units upon 2700 of acres of open space, ranch lands and seasonal wetlands, Cordova Hills is classic “leap frog” development: a project completely unconnected to any other town, city or other developed area. If eating up more open space is not enough for you, Cordova Hills will drive up air pollution and carbon emissions with all the car travel this far-flung, throwback lifestyle requires.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors somehow managed to miss what land use planners and local elected officials up and down the State have known for years: California is no longer the home of sprawl—it’s the home of a quiet revolution in land use and transportation planning. Cordova Hills is the exact opposite of what Californians want, evidenced both in polls and by the way they are increasingly making housing decisions that favor more close in locations. In fact the most recent housing market studies suggest that the Sacramento region is more than over-supplied with the kind of housing Cordova Hills will provide—even considering population growth to 2035. Regions are quickly realizing the importance, and benefits, of smarter land use, more transportation choices, and putting people, jobs and services closer together. Doing so is better for the planet, better for public health, and cheaper for local governments and households, not to mention what Californians actually want out of their communities.

So how did Cordova Hills get approved? It’s not as though the Board of Supervisors was unaware of these issues. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is arguably the nation’s leader in sustainable regional planning, and less than a year ago, to significant praise from environmentalists and homebuilders alike, adopted its Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), the land use and transportation plan required under California’s SB 375 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—which didn’t envision any development at all in this location. The foundation for this SCS was the Blueprint Plan the region developed by consensus nearly ten years ago to encourage infill, preserve open space and farmland, and minimize negative environmental impacts.

The power of both the blueprint and the SCS processes is that they brought together literally thousands of local residents, businesses, local governments, and community groups to jointly envision their future. And they found a better future—one that reduced traffic congestion, cleaned the air and created a stronger, more integrated region. The only way the region can achieve this vision of a better future is if they act jointly to implement it—which many communities are doing in good faith. Sacramento, West Sacramento, Roseville, Rancho Cordova, Lincoln—to name just a few—are doing their part to make sure this regional vision comes to life. And then Sacramento County decides to ignore a decade worth of regional consensus building with a decision that threatens the quality of life improvements this award winning plan had offered. The Board, in fact, had to actually change change its General Plan and expand its urban service boundaries—both drastic measures—to accommodate the project. Talk about out of touch.

And it’s not like no one told them. Hundreds of community voices provided hours of testimony against the project. The Sacramento Bee editorialized strongly against it (twice!).  No less than Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, author of SB 375 and the Senator who represents the project site felt compelled to send the Board a letter reminding them of what SB 375 was meant to achieve. Mike McKeever, head of SACOG, also testified to the Board about the project’s shortcomings and how the approval could jeopardize the region’s transportation funding.  All, apparently, to no avail.

There are years of further permit fights ahead for the Cordova Hills project, and its final construction is far from certain. But with this action, the Sacramento Board of Supervisors proves itself out of step with the new paradigm of growth in California: real, sustainable development, sensitive to the environment and in line with the lifestyle preferences of 21st Century Californians. 

This post was co-written by my NRDC colleague, Justin Horner.

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Alan KandelFeb 6 2013 07:21 PM

Ditto for the Central Valley.

See: "Paving over Valley ag land"

Charles FrithFeb 7 2013 01:29 AM

Interesting. How did it get approved? You mention all the further issues that make it problematic, but not how it actually got approved. money? Doesn't somebody want this if they are building it? Or are they so out of touch that it won't sell. Not that regulating to try to encourage certain cultural trends over others is a problem.

so what can we (avg Americans) do about this? Who will stick up for what's right in the permit fights? Are there incentives in place to create the more sustainable development you speak of?

Also you had a typo, repeating "Change" twice: "The Board, in fact, had to actually change change its General Plan "


Alan KandelFeb 7 2013 11:55 AM

As for "Who will stick up for what's right in the permit fights?" and "Are there incentives in place to create the more sustainable development you speak of?" this article might provide answers.

David WadeFeb 7 2013 04:28 PM

Those commenting on the project might do the world a favor and learn a bit about it.
Far from a throwback to the 60's style of suburban development this project is a compact new town. The average residential density is 10 dwellings per acre, a mixed use plan that is significantly greater than the typical suburban density in the region of about 3, yet 35% of the site is set aside in permanent open space. Schools, parks, job centers and commercial services are integrated within the community such that 100% of all homes are within 1/4 mile of a park/open space; 84% are within 1/2 mile of shops and services; and 94% of all homes are within 1/2 mile of a stop on the local transit system. All land use is tied together with 75 miles of pedestrian and bike trails, roughly double the density per square mile the bike system in the holy city of Davis. The project includes a major job center with project employment for about 6000 workers, and is within 5 miles of the second largest employment center in the region. So please, spare the world your uninformed self-righteousness. Far from promoting smart planning and green house gas reductions such simplistic blogs contribute to the already limited public understanding of what needs to be done to deal with climate change. Has anyone commenting here actually bothered to check out the plan? It is readily available on the Sacramento County web site.

Carolyn SandieFeb 7 2013 10:38 PM

I ,too, am bewildered and extremely disappointed by the Board's approval of the Cordova Hills Project. As SACOG noted, Sacramento County has an excess of land for infill projects. We DO have a Blueprint for intelligent growth emphasizing agricultual preservation, open space, and protecting species. We are all "Stewards of the Land," and if you cave-in to developers, we all will lose. I challenge this present Board to pledge to be good Stewards for all of the unique qualities in Sacramento: the remaining riparian forests, the vernal pools, open space, and wildlife. Let's strictly adhere to the SACOG Blueprint. Your consituents expect this of you! Thanks, Phil Serna, for
voicing the need to put this project aside for now. The proposed university does not even have an operator at this point. And of course, a developer who thinks the project just might be unpopular, will always throw in the "carrot" of donated land for a university. We've seen that tactic before!

Alan KandelFeb 8 2013 11:14 AM

Mr. Wade states that "...and that 94% of all homes are within 1/2 mile of a stop on the local transit system."

I would like to know what that mode of transit he refers to is. Is it bus, lightrail or both bus and lightrail? Pending the community being built, what are the passenger projections for bus, lightrail (or both if, in fact, both are to serve the community)? Average public transit patronage nationwide is 2%. What this suggests is that 98% of trips to and from will be by automobile which does little in my opinion to significantly reduce greenhouse gas and other motor vehicle-sourced emissions. If it is solely bus that serves Cordova Hills, if such does not employ battery-electric propulsion technology, the buses will still pollute. Whether such are propelled by internal-combustion propulsion technology or even if the technology is hybrid, then patronage numbers must reach a certain threshold before there is any eco-benefit to speak of.

Futhermore, and perhaps most importantly, if there is alread an abundance of available homes in the Sacramento area, why build Cordova Hills at all?

In my opinion, infill development - first and foremost - should be exploited to the fullest; development that is mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, medium-to-high density, location-efficient and transit-oriented in nature. These communities promote walking, bicycling and transit use, which, in and of itself, helps curb greenhouse gas and other emissions, thereby satisfying the requirements of the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008 (SB 375).

Isn't SB 375 what this whole issue is about, anyway?

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