Development controversy to Sunset

What does smart growth even mean in a rapidly developing county like Placer?

Leslie Warren (left), chair of the Alliance for Environmental Leadership, voices concerns about Placer County development plans May 2 to the Auburn Area Democratic Club.

Leslie Warren (left), chair of the Alliance for Environmental Leadership, voices concerns about Placer County development plans May 2 to the Auburn Area Democratic Club.

Photo by Graham Womack

On Facebook, there’s a page with nearly 1,700 likes titled “Don’t Roseville Nevada County.” In recent years, bumper stickers in the foothills have proclaimed a similar message:

While Nevada County’s largest city, Grass Valley, has added just a few thousand residents since 1990 and still has fewer than 15,000 people, Roseville’s population has more than tripled to more than 150,000. Nearby cities such as Rocklin and Lincoln have seen similarly large growth spurts in recent decades.

Now, controversy is brewing over one of the last stretches of undeveloped land between the three cities, known as the Sunset Area—and what the term smart growth means in Placer County.

Earlier this year, the county requested public comments on a draft environmental impact report for its Sunset Area and Placer Ranch Specific plans. Under the plans, the county would turn 8,497 acres of largely undeveloped land into possibly one of the largest employment centers in the region. All told, the plans call for more than 55,000 jobs to go with roughly 8,000 residential units, satellite campuses for Sacramento State University and Sierra College, and more.

“Looking strictly at numbers for buildout of the [plan] areas, the project would add substantially more jobs than housing units, making it a ’jobs-rich’ area,” Placer County principal planner Crystal Jacobsen wrote in a February report, ahead of a planning commission meeting. “Viewed in the context of all of Placer County, the project’s contribution would serve to provide more balance.”

Others see it differently.

“The county of Placer is proposing to build an industrial city the size of Roseville in the West Placer prairie,” Leslie Warren, chairperson of the Alliance for Environmental Leadership, told 30 mostly senior attendees at the Auburn Area Democratic Club on May 2.

County officials concede that project impacts could be substantial and unavoidable. The plan would go about 40% above the Sacramento Area Council of Government’s recommended average vehicle miles traveled for residents and employees. In addition, plans call for housing within 1,000 feet of an existing landfill. The project would also result in the removal of roughly 5,000 acres of vernal pools.

Warren, who used some of her time to present an alternative plan for the area, expressed concern about the ratio of jobs to residences. She also decried the lack of affordable housing and multi-unit housing in Placer County.

“When push comes to shove and the [Placer County] Board of Supervisors is making decisions about land use … climate and social justice is on the back burner,” Warren told the crowd.

How soon development actually happens in the area is a different matter. Placer County has had plans on the books since at least 1997, approving a major update in September 2016. Jacobsen’s report acknowledges that development within the Placer Ranch area could take another 20 years and Sunset Area development could take 80.

That would mirror the slow progress for another environmental lightning rod of a public project, the Placer County Parkway, which would connect Highway 65 and Highway 99.

In the meantime, Warren and her group, which came together in response to the plan, could continue to speak out. Warren gave a 30-minute informational presentation to the planning commission on March 28, after one of its members, Wayne Nader, invited her to do so. County supervisors have yet to take action since the close of the comment period for the environmental report in late February.

County officials declined to comment for this story, though a retired county employee, Mike Fitch, provided the lone voice of dissent to Warren’s presentation last week. Fitch told Warren during the meeting that the plan has been publicly in the works at least 40 to 50 years, “never was meant to provide housing” and that the county has other land that couldn’t be developed for perpetuity. Fitch also suggested Warren was oversimplifying the issue.

“I just think the project’s much more complicated than one would at first think,” Fitch told SN&R following the meeting.

Even Fitch expressed some uncertainty, though, over the project’s future.

“The problem is … the county never had the funds to provide all the infrastructure that’s needed,” Fitch said.

It’s unclear whether Warren’s group or others will pursue a lawsuit through the California Environmental Quality Act, though Warren admitted she’d spoken with a lawyer.

“Do we have $150,000 to pay for a lawsuit?” Warren told SN&R. “That’s the weak link.”