Bad air, less space, worse traffic

A roundtable discussion on the region’s No.1 environmental problem

Dave Jones

Dave Jones


Dave Jones is a member of the Sacramento City Council. He represents the south-east side of town and works with a coalition of citizens and groups on “smart-growth” and land-use issues.

Developer David Taylor has built several large Downtown projects, including the Esquire Plaza, and is on the board of the Downtown Partnership. He also builds two-to-six-story office buildings and plans further development in the suburbs.

Vicki Lee serves as chairwoman of the Motherlode Chapter of the Sierra Club.

David Mogavero is an architect, urban planner and current president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento. He also dabbles in real estate development.

Jesse Smith is an environmental studies major at California State University Sacramento and is helping coordinate Earth Day events at CSUS.

In honor of Earth Day 2001, the SN&R invited a handful of local leaders to join a roundtable discussion on the key environmental problem facing the region—sprawl. The conversation was far-ranging, insightful … and sometimes surprising. The following is an edited transcript of the exchange:

News & Review: Let’s start by trying to frame the problem. The Sacramento region is supposed to grow by one million people in the next two decades. That’s like adding a city the size of Folsom to our city every year. Within a decade, our roads are going to be more congested, our open spaces are going to be less pristine, our air quality worse, our water supply more strained. To what degree is this inevitable?

Mogavero: Well, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be degradation—the question is how much. And how much can we plan for the future in a manner so that we minimize the impacts on population. The problem, in a nutshell, is sprawl.

Taylor: The thing that worries me the most about growth is that we don’t seem very well set-up to handle it. It’s all fairly fragmented, with municipalities acting independently, not consolidating. That concerns me, because as a person who has to deal with each of these different municipalities … well, not only does it make my job more difficult, but it’s clear that the planning is not well managed.

David Taylor

Lee: Everybody talks about how we should emulate the European model where they have huge cities that grow but still seem able to work for people. But they have subways and public transit systems, and they had those things from before the car existed. In America, we got going after the car and we’ve never retrofitted our cities to put in place good public transit systems. So we’re driving ourselves into sprawling! Literally. And there seems to be so little interest in going back and putting into place the transit systems that all those other cities had from the get-go.

Jones: There’s no question that we’re going to be faced with a tremendous increase in population, so it’s a question of how we manage it. But it’s gonna happen. What I’m looking for—and what other states like Maryland have done—is set up a structure that basically ties the local infrastructure dollars to local decision-making to contain suburban sprawl. You don’t get dollars if you develop in certain areas, and you do if you develop in others. There are incentives and sanctions. But we don’t have that now. In fact, we have quite the contrary. We have incentives to do the opposite! The way the state and local finance structure is put together, locals rely heavily on sales tax, which is collected at point of origin. So all the municipalities are scrambling around trying to develop sales tax-generating projects that, of course, lead to further sprawl. We need to take the fiscal element out of land-use decisions.

SN&R: David Taylor, what do you think of that as a developer?

Taylor: Well, I think anything that causes there to be a financial incentive to use smart-growth policies is a good thing. This could be a lot more easily attained from a consolidation, but that’s been tried in Sacramento several times already and it’s failed.

Jones: An example: We have something called the Sacramento Transportation Authority, which has joint powers—it’s the conduit through which the state and federal transportation dollars flow. What it does is divvy those dollars up more or less on a per capita basis. Recently, we’ve been somewhat successful in carving out some of those dollars for public transit, to extend the Light Rail south line, or extend the line out to Folsom. But most federal and state dollars for transportation get divvied up by the localities. Now, imagine a world where those dollars were divvied up based on whether you adhered to smart-growth policies instead of suburban sprawl! Another example of where we could make a difference locally, but haven’t yet, is the Regional Sanitation District, which has the sewer infrastructure and keeps running sewer lines out to the outlying areas. We had a great coalition of the Sierra Club, ACORN and some Downtown developers that went to the Regional Sanitation district and said “This is crazy, we’ve got to change this.” I think we made some headway. So I think there are several joint power entities that make regional infrastructure decisions where we need to prioritize smart growth, containing sprawl, protecting the environment.

Mogavero: I’m really hopeful on a lot of different levels; there’s a bunch of dynamics that are occurring out there. One is, if you look at the polling data for Rocklin and Folsom, where you have this extremely conservative constituency, the intensity of citizen reaction to the problems that are created by sprawl is growing tremendously. That is the foundation of activism for the future.

SN&R: What’s the most critical aspect of this that should be tackled first?

Mogavero: We have to look at our transportation system. As a culture, we have to accept that attempting to alleviate congestion is a no-win game. We’re going to have to learn as a culture to live with congestion. Also, it’s important to note that the real estate industry is evolving and willing to change. I was just up in Portland and have seen how transportation policies have an impact on the real estate industry up there. I think 30-40 percent of that industry is involved in infill development up there—transit-oriented development. It wasn’t this way 15 years ago! This has been the result of clear, political will from the top all the way to the bottom over a long period of time.

Vicki Lee

Lee: Do you really think the real estate industry is evolving? [Laughs] They’re Neanderthal! They just don’t want to change. The cookie-cutter is the way they make money, so they do it!

Taylor: But I think the way that you make a change is that you create policies. The point is setting the rules and applying them consistently. Of course they don’t want to change. They’re not looking to change. But if you set it up and play fair, they’ll find a way to make money. The problem now is that a city does a General Plan and immediately starts changing it. Like they zone all this property in Natomas and immediately start changing it! It creates uncertainty and it also creates opportunity for people like me. What we need is clear rules and consistent application.

SN&R: So how do we get there from here?

Jones: At the city we got there, just about six months ago, with the Cambay West development in North Natomas, where a developer came in and said “I see what the community plan says, but I want to downzone my area. Instead of doing higher-density and medium-density, I want to do single-family housing.” And that got through the Planning Commission and that got through the staff and that got to the Council. And the Council, to its credit, said “No.” We essentially rejected the developer’s request to be downzoned. I think that sent the message to our staff and the Planning Commission and the development community that the Natomas Plan means something—when it says high-density around transit stops, we’re gonna have high-density around transit stops. But I think the bigger fight is with these “edge city” municipalities and regional decision-making bodies …

Lee: How can you guarantee that they’ll be good boys and girls? …

Jones: Exactly. In the case of Folsom, which has not had a housing element for 10 years, which has not produced any low-income housing for at least seven years. Well, should this city be permitted to go forward and expand its borders until it takes care of these things? I think that applies as well to Elk Grove and to Rancho Cordova … to anybody who wishes to expand in any way. I think the question should be: are they doing the right stuff? I think the forum where that gets posed could be the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). It’s just another example of a joint power entity that could use its authority to help make sure the growth is happening in smart ways.

Lee: But we have 21 of these kind of special districts and we could point to anyone and say “OK, the buck stops with you.” But it doesn’t really. The culture is a little different at LAFCO than it is at SACOG (Sacramento Area Council of Governments) than it is at the Regional Sanitation District. But the policy you make in one spot doesn’t seem to bleed over to the other. And community members watch in horror at these outrageous decisions that are being made in conflict with one another. And it’s just pathetic that citizens have to make appeals because the staff at the city and, I presume, the county level, are so comfortable working with developers. They just roll over! If the zoning is a problem for a developer the staff say “Well sure, what would you like to have instead?” I’ve heard a lot of different ways to rationalize the behavior of staff. They’re overworked or whatever. But mainly I think its this policy direction they get from the city manager, which is “We gotta bring home the bacon here, kids.”

SN&R: Let’s talk about the north area for a moment. I am afraid that the assumption right now is that it is going to be developed, that it’s just a matter of trying to do it right. Is this correct?

David Mogavero

Lee: Doing it right is not doing it at all. We believe that we need to preserve the area as open space. It is just simple sprawl. So we in the Sierra Club are saying “enough already.” If there’s to be income-generating development, then let it be within the existing urban boundaries. As environmentalists, we decided that we’re going to stop just nodding when these issues come up.

Jones: When you look at the tremendous sprawling growth that has occurred in this region in the past decade … why did it happen? One reason was we had a very vibrant economy here. But the growth pattern itself is in no small part due to delays in development of North Natomas. And, basically, the fight to get a good plan ended up resulting in a decade or more delay in development. And where did that development end up? It ended up in Roseville and Rocklin and up the 80 and 50 corridor. So if you look at this not just from the perspective of the city and county, if you take your bird’s eye view up higher and look at the corridors and look at the edge cities that we’re creating and look at the proximity of development in South Sacramento and North Natomas in relation to the urban core … well, they look a lot closer than these edge cities. If we constrain smart development—I’m not saying we should sprawl, I’m saying we should do high-density development—but if you constrain it, then the result is that everything gets shoved out to Roseville, Rocklin and up the 80 and 50 corridors.

SN&R: A few of you are speaking with optimism about how things are getting better, but I don’t think the average person buys it. Sprawl continues. Most Sacramentans think it’s inevitable that we’ll become another L.A. with the traffic and air worsening. Jesse, I don’t know how young people feel …

Smith: Well, I think that higher-density living can be presented in a way that’s more appealing to young people. I’ve lived in the suburbs and I’ve lived in rural areas and I’ve lived here in Sacramento. And I think this one is probably the least stressful living situation! I love the fact that I don’t have to use my car and that I can walk to the shops, walk to a bar, walk to a restaurant. When I lived in a suburb, I’d see somebody walking down the street and I wouldn’t even know who they were. But here I know everybody in my apartment building and the people on the block and my whole neighborhood. I think that says a lot about the quality of life you can get living in a high-density situation. A lot of people don’t know that is available to them. Maybe it should be presented in a way that is more appealing to people.

SN&R: Yes, but a lot of people who live in the suburbs really do like the way it is out there. You have your garage, your pool …

Jones: Well, some people have made a conscious decision not to be in an urban area because they were unhappy with the quality of the schools or fearful of crime or don’t like living close to people, or they want their own little piece of heaven.

Mogavero: It’s justifiable for people to have different desires for where they want to live. But what isn’t fair, and what isn’t just, is for those of us who live in the city to be subsidizing that. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.

Jesse Smith

Lee: But elected officials will roll over with the slightest bit of pressure from developers even though they have “smart-growth” policies in place. We as community members would love it if they just honored the very policies that they’ve adopted! … I think SACOG is the key. They have the housing allocations. SACOG is a very good target for fixing our quality of life.

Taylor: What concerns me about a SACOG and LAFCO and regional transportation board—the people on those boards, while they may be elected officials, aren’t elected to sit on these boards. And I didn’t know who the hell the Regional Sanitation Board was until I walked into their meeting the other day. And they’ve been charging me huge fees for 10 years! I had no idea where the fees were going. I didn’t know the faces behind the board. I didn’t know anything. SACOG is very important in regional governance, but most people have no idea who sits on the SACOG. I have no idea who to call.

Lee: I call it “underground government” because they make the decisions and we can’t hold them particularly accountable.

Taylor: But if you’re not going to go with an attempt at regional consolidation, then you’ve got to have an alternative that is effective at regional planning. And if it’s going to be these other entities, there needs to be a more direct link between who you’re electing and what regional boards they’re sitting on. So I guess there needs to be some political thought to how to accomplish that goal. But there also needs to be thought on how to encourage the municipalities who can, in a positive way, influence density. And it needs to be done in a way that is not confrontational. Everyone can agree that creating high-density housing in the urban core is a good thing. But right now there are so few funds available from the city of Sacramento and redevelopment agency to actually facilitate that kind of development that it’s an extremely difficult thing to get done right now. Because it does, at this point, require a subsidy. But if you look back at Portland 10-15 years ago, that kind of development also required a subsidy, though it doesn’t today.

Mogavero: San Diego was the same way.

Taylor: So the key should be a plan that puts dollars in the city government’s hands, so you get enough of those projects seeded, that they can actually create a market. Then developers come in and want to get into the market. Show me where to go, and when, to the SACOG meetings, assuming it’s not in the middle of one of my children’s events, and I’ll start showing up …

Lee: Oh, take the kids! [Laughs]

Jones: At the city, what we’ve tried to do in the last year is have City Council discussions about these issues and then we use those, hopefully, to adopt policies that inform our representatives on these different regional bodies. This whole notion of accountability of the people on these boards makes a lot of sense.

On the idea of trying to create incentives for infill development—the problem is that what we have to offer from the city in that regard is really a drop in the bucket versus the tremendous market forces that favor suburban sprawl. And, unless we figure out a way to have those other jurisdictions do their fair share of affordable housing, their fair share of social services, their fair share of higher-density houses, and contribute in equal ways to public transit and favor open-space policies, we are going to be at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. We can and should put dollars into infill development. But looking at the overall scale of things, our money is a drop in the bucket.

Mogavero: Just to put it in dollars, the real estate industry in the Sacramento area is a $2 billion-a-year investment. The money the Sacramento Redevelopment Agency has made available for subsidizing Downtown infill development? $8 million.

Jones: And that was a big deal!

Mogavero: It’s an order of magnitude thing.

Taylor: If you want to help stem the tide of suburban sprawl, you don’t just attack the land-use issues, you also attack the market issues. So what I’m saying is make it attractive for people to live Downtown. Make it attractive in cost and transportation, and then they’ll look at Downtown to live. The people coming here from San Francisco, they could be looking at living Downtown instead of immediately heading out to Roseville. So I’m not saying you can adjust the market rate or cut out growth in the outer area. But make a positive reason for people to be in the inner areas.

SN&R: A lot of people don’t even speak the language that most of the people around this table are speaking right now—land use, infill development and housing allocations. Especially young people …

Smith: I don’t pretend to speak for young people, but I’m not familiar with a lot of the specific issues that have come up here. But that’s my own fault for not getting more involved. I think it’s fair to say there is probably a lack of understanding among most young people on these issues.

Mogavero: There’s one point that I want to make and that’s a deep philosophical underlying matter that I believe pervades all social equity and environmental issues, and that is: the world’s gonna change. Resources are becoming more precious, we’ve got more and more people on the planet. It’s inevitable that we are going to learn to live more efficiently and less resource-intensively. And with change comes pain. And the underlying question for all of us in this community is how do we make sure that the burden of that change is spread out evenly and across the board for everyone. There are some land speculators who are gonna walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of profit from this roulette wheel game that we play with land-use entitlements, and there are others who are gonna suffer for generations as a result.

SN&R: I have a sense that almost the same people could be sitting around almost the same table 10 years from now talking about a worsening of the same problems. Can we really hope that things are going to change for this region?

Taylor: At least people with political power and state elected officials are beginning to use the words “smart growth.” Ten years ago they weren’t.

Jones: What I’ve seen in the past year gives me hope. I think the coalition of environmentalists and business associations and developers and neighborhood advocates, like ACORN, and housing advocates that come together around these different issues give us cause for hope. For example: I think we may have lost the battle at the Regional Sanitation District, but I think we won the larger war, because the city is now going to develop a plan, the coalition is going to develop a plan, we’re not going to wait for the engineers to come up with one. Where there’s discussion, there’s cause for hope. But we’re going to have to work doubly hard and organize like crazy and get people elected who share this view and hold them accountable. It’s never gonna be easy. But I think if we don’t figure it out, we’ve got a big problem on our hands.