Expanding Elk Grove: Narrow vote allows city to start considering southern development of farmland, wildlife habitat

Environmentalists and farmers say commission vote opens door to sprawl

Jim Pachl and other environmentalists urged LAFCO not to open the door to development with existing vacant land in Elk Grove.

Jim Pachl and other environmentalists urged LAFCO not to open the door to development with existing vacant land in Elk Grove.

Photo by Michael Mott

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

A regional body of elected officials and residents narrowly approved opening the door to development that farmers and environmentalists say could threaten wildlife habitats and conservation efforts south of Elk Grove.

On February 7, the Sacramento Local Area Formation Commission, or LAFCO, approved landowners’ bid to expand Elk Grove’s “sphere of influence” by 1,156 acres, which could lead to a formal annexation and development process. The commissioners’ 4-3 approval came with an environmental impact report that warned development could cause “significant and unavoidable impacts” to wildlife, habitats and groundwater.

The move broadens Elk Grove’s ability to expand to its south, near Highway 99 and Kammerer Road, where city officials are bullish about a plan to connect Interstate 5 and State Route 99 south of Elk Grove to Highway 50 in El Dorado Hills. The idea is to carve a direct highway channel between these two distant communities, populating the distance between them with hundreds of new homes and businesses.

While no specific annexation or development requests have been made, the possibility alarmed environmentalists concerned about Elk Grove’s rapid growth snowballing into sprawl. Even before the annexation, the city possessed at least 1,800 acres of undeveloped land.

“We’re not opposed to development,” said Jim Pachl, a co-founder of Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk and former Elk Grove resident. “It has to happen in some way. But there is unused land.”

Pachl’s group estimated the amount of undeveloped land in Elk Grove is actually closer to 4,000 acres and includes “in-development” projects that have sat stagnant for years.

A day before the vote, Pachl gazed over fields home to threatened Swainson’s hawks, a raptor that often nests between Sacramento and Modesto. Elk Grove’s untouched grasslands feed the predatory bird, whose population fell from a historic 17,136 breeding pairs to 941 pairs in 2009, according to the California Department of Fish and Game. Sandhill cranes, burrowing owls and other species would also be threatened by development, the EIR states.

Gesturing to the site of the proposed Wilton Rancheria Indian casino near the expanded sphere of influence, Pachl added, “This is all zoned for development. … When we hear Elk Grove say ’We need more land,’ it’s a joke.”

Those who supported redrawing Elk Grove’s urban boundary characterize this as a local-control issue that could help relieve the region’s housing crisis and the city’s jobs-to-housing ratio.

“This will allow the city of Elk Grove to go to the next step,” developer Gerry Kamilos, who brought the proposal with developer Martin Feletto, told commissioners last week. “It’s going to be the city of Elk Grove that brings the annexation request [if there is one], not us. It will be a community process with many studies that ultimately result in a mitigation program.”

A different regional planning body, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, says Elk Grove already has enough land to build housing.

“We agree Elk Grove may need land outside the current city limits at some point beyond 2036,” Kacey Lizon, SACOG’s planning manager, wrote to LAFCO in August. “However, given the very large supply of housing entitlements in the rest of the region, and Elk Grove’s current high ratio of housing to jobs, we do not foresee a need for land in the [sphere of influence] for housing for many years.”

Other agencies raised red flags about Elk Grove’s growth, as well.

In letters, the Sacramento County Water Agency indicated its water holdings are already spoken for; the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District said it didn’t have the facilities to handle sewage there; Fish and Wildlife questioned whether area wildlife conservation goals could be met; and the Sacramento County Farm Bureau worried that more urban development could drive out existing agricultural businesses.

LAFCO commissioners Ron Greenwood, Susan Peters, Sue Frost and Patrick Hume voted in favor of expanding Elk Grove’s canvas. Commissioners Angelique Ashby, Rex Harrison and Gay Jones cast dissenting votes. Hume, an Elk Grove City Council member, said this was an opportunity for his city to control its fate.

“Elk Grove has been the whipping post for land use planning for decades,” he said at the meeting. “We’re trying to be in charge of our own destiny.”

This isn’t the first attempt at expanding Elk Grove’s canvas. In 2013, LAFCO rejected a bid to bring 8,000 acres into the city’s sphere of influence. The governing body suggested the city set its sights lower, which ultimately led to last week’s approval.

LAFCO also approved Folsom’s request to annex 3,520 acres in 2012. The city is actively planning to develop the acreage with housing and commercial real estate.

“Sprawl is the story of Sacramento,” said Pachl, who has served on the boards of the Sierra Club and Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “I have no idea if they actually want to build or just sell to the next guy. Often, projects are approved and later sold again and again until a sugar-daddy developer finally builds something.”