All sprawled out and nowhere to grow
The city of Folsom’s controversial expansion efforts could be put on hold because of claims that the city is in violation of state housing law. Housing advocates say the city has severely mismanaged its rapid growth and has ignored its obligation to provide adequate housing for low-income families.
Folsom’s population has mushroomed over the past decade, from about 29,000 in 1990 to more than 52,000 today. The city has asked the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO)—the agency that determines municipal boundaries—to allow Folsom to expand its sphere of influence over a 3,500-acre swath of oak woodlands south of Highway 50. The expanded sphere of influence is the first step toward annexation and eventual development of the area.
That land is currently off-limits to development under the county’s General Plan. Many Folsom residents and local environmental groups want it to stay that way, citing the impact that development would have on area air quality, traffic congestion and the loss of significant areas of open space and natural habitat.
Now affordable housing advocates are asking LAFCO to deny the application because the city has a severe shortage of affordable housing and no plan to provide more.
“This is a classic example of a sprawling low-density community,” said Lisa Noling, an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California, a nonprofit organization that advocates for tenants’ rights and affordable housing.
Noling said that Folsom has only itself to blame for the current predicament of having nowhere to grow. It is precisely because the city followed a pattern of low-density, single-family and suburban-style development that most of the land inside the city boundaries was consumed relatively quickly. Rather than reward such sprawling behavior, Noling says LAFCO should refuse a greater sphere of influence until the city comes up with an adequate housing element—the plan to provide housing for all income levels that is required by state law.
“It’s going to be difficult to shoe-horn in more affordable housing. But it’s time for the city of Folsom to roll up its sleeves and do its fair share,” said Noling.
State law requires that every local government in California must have an updated housing element that shows the city or county has an adequate plan to provide its fair share of affordable housing for all income levels.
In 1993, the California Department of Housing and Community Development found that Folsom had not identified enough sites for development of affordable housing and that the city was short more than 3,000 units for low- and very low-income families. Noling believes the need is much greater today.
Since 1993, the housing element appears to have been largely forgotten.
While the law does not provide for any specific penalties for noncompliance, lack of a housing element leaves jurisdictions open to lawsuits. Sacramento County lost a suit brought by Legal Services of Northern California in 1996, and the county was required to build an additional 425 acres of affordable housing.Th-reat of a similar lawsuit prompted officials in the city of Sacramento to adopt a fairly progressive housing element earlier this year.
LAFCO attorney Nancy Miller said that she does not believe the lack of a valid housing element should interfere with LAFCO’s approval of the application, but she said she was not certain what the legal implications are. “It’s certainly a legitimate question,” said Miller.
The trouble, said Miller, is that Folsom can’t build affordable housing because there’s no land left to build it on. “To meet their fair share housing need, they are going to have to annex some land,” said Miller.
That idea was echoed by Bill Abbott, an outside attorney hired by Folsom to shepherd the sphere of influence effort.
“The reality is that the city has entitlements in place for all of its property,” said Abbott, explaining that there aren’t enough vacant parcels left in the city to build more housing. Because the city has no specific land-use plan for the new area, Abbott said he believes the housing element creates no legal conflict, and LAFCO should approve the application. He added that a new housing element would probably be needed before any new development, and that document could be influenced by the threat of a lawsuit.
“We take their concerns very seriously,” he added.
All of this leads to a sort of Catch-22: The city says it needs more land to meet its housing obligation, but opponents say it’s not fair for the city to make a land grab simply because it mismanaged its own growth and that allowing it to do so will only make matters worse. The city has previously declared that it would like to use the land for commercial development, not housing.
“The city developed 50 years worth of land in 10 years. People are fed up,” said Bill Fish with the Alliance of Folsom Residents, a local organization that is opposing the expansion plans.
The Alliance is contemplating a citywide ballot measure that would preserve that space as 100 percent open space, protected from development altogether. Fish said he believes that the majority of Folsom residents actually oppose expansion, although city officials have pushed hard for it.
“The only reason the city wants to go there is to cater to development interests,” said Fish.