Housing or hoax, you make the call

Showdown nears in east county development fight

Mindy Cecchettini thinks Deer Creek Hills will destroy the rural life.

Mindy Cecchettini thinks Deer Creek Hills will destroy the rural life.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Everything around Sloughhouse is brown this time of year. Mindy Cecchettini absent-mindedly pokes at a clump of melon weed with her foot, one of the few patches of green left on the hills in fall.

“The mourning doves just love this stuff,” she says, kneeling to pick a couple of the tiny velveteen leaves and then standing again to take in the hills around her.

“Most people think it’s just grazing land. But you have to see it in the springtime. The wildflowers are incredible.”

Not far from here, Cecchettini owns a 10-acre horse ranch, where she raises quarter horses, “cow-smart” working horses used in cattle-herding. Her neighbors raise turkeys and chickens, some grow corn or berries.

But much of the life in the east area of the county is wild, like the hawks and falcons that spend their winters here, likewise the cranes and geese and also the native oaks that dot the hills.

“And he is going to plop his little city down right there,” she says pointing to the hills about a mile northeast. “Without any consideration for the lives of the people here.”

“He” is the Rancho Cordova developer and bridge-builder C.C Myers, by now a familiar name in these parts. His “little city” is Deer Creek Hills, a 3,000-home gated retirement community that Myers has been trying for 10 years to get built. And for a decade he has been told “no, not here,” and has pushed on relentlessly anyway.

On Nov. 7, voters will decide on Measure O, and decide once and for all whether Myers will have his way. If approved, the initiative would allow Myers to build Deer Creek Hills, although it is not allowed under the county’s General Plan.

But the television spots Myers has run to promote the measure don’t talk about this place, the place Cecchettini calls ground-zero, at all. There are a lot of things, she says, that Myers isn’t telling people.

“People don’t like to be bamboozled. I think if they get a whiff of what this is really about, they won’t like it at all.”

Indeed, the television spots present a simple, easy-to-understand message: “Save our seniors.” So simple that many voters are unlikely to understand all of its implications. What’s shown is a couple, concerned that their retired mother will have to move far away from her children and grandchild, into some vague but sinister senior exile, because there is no place for her to live. But voting yes on Measure O would mean that grandma could live right here in Sacramento.

“Right here” is relative, of course. Right here is not anywhere in particular, some 20 miles east of the city of Sacramento, in the middle of an oak forest.

Behind the “Save our seniors” message are years of bitter feuding over complicated land-use policy.

The county Board of Supervisors twice rejected the project because it lay outside the county’s Urban Services Boundary (USB), the urban limit line set in the county’s 1993 General Plan. But Myers has refused to take no for an answer, coming back with the ballot measure that not only allows his project, but creates a whole new senior-zoning designation that would be exempt from much of the environmental review and financial analysis required of other projects.

County planners have repeatedly said there is plenty of land, some 74,000 developable acres, left inside the USB, but developers have insisted on buying up huge chunks of land in the eastern area of the county, outside of the area designated for urban growth. Myers is the first to try to break the line.

In doing so, he is looking to fill a lucrative housing niche that is otherwise absent in Sacramento County, an upscale seniors’ master-plan community. With houses starting at about $200,000, it’s not the kind of place that everybody’s grandma will be able to afford. The proposal boasts its own medical facilities, shopping centers and a 200-acre, 18-hole golf course.

The project as planned will create some 800 permanent jobs and generate about $2 million in property taxes for the county.

“Twenty percent of the population in Sacramento County [is] over 60 years old,” said Deer Creek spokeswoman Joan Barry, explaining that there’s not enough housing for area seniors.

Although opponents of Measure O have pointed to high-rise style senior communities in the city, such as Pioneer Towers downtown or James Monroe Manor on Freeport Boulevard, Barry says those places aren’t for everybody.

“I think it’s arrogant to tell seniors where they can live,” said Barry. “I think older people should have a choice, and Deer Creek Hills is one of those choices,” she added, explaining that many older citizens don’t want to have anything to do with the city because they see it as crowded and dangerous.

“The idea that older people can’t find a place to live in the city is just ridiculous,” said Joan Lee, with the Sacramento Grey Panthers. Lee, a 73-year-old grandmother who lives in the Greenback area, objects to the idea that the city is not safe for the elderly, or that seniors must live in a gated compound to be secure.

“They are playing on people’s fears. Making up stories about the danger of the city,” said Lee.

And even though Deer Creek is billed as a self-contained community with all the amenities, Lee says it is still basically an isolated compound, far from mass transit and other services that seniors need. Worse, she said it’s an exclusive enclave for the wealthy, built in part with taxpayer money.

And aside from its impact on the east county’s environment, Lee said Deer Creek would be a terrible place for seniors to live. First, there’s the smog; the area has some of the worst ozone levels in the region.

In September, the board of the Sacramento Air Quality Management District voted to oppose Measure O because the air pollution was so bad and would only get worse with a massive new development.

“We never envisioned a major emissions source in that area of the county,” said AQMD spokesperson Kerry Shearer, explaining that the additional traffic to and from the site would threaten Sacramento’s efforts to comply with federal clean-air standards.

“There’s really not any slack for us to take up somewhere else,” he added.

But backers of Measure O, of course, dismiss AQMD’s position.

“I think the whole air-quality thing is just politically driven,” said Barry.

The measure is also opposed by most local government officials, including the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, City Council, state Sen. Deborah Ortiz and Assemblyman Darrel Steinberg.

County Supervisor Illa Collin, one of the most outspoken elected officials opposing the project, said the measure, which is 48 pages, leaves several loopholes that would allow Myers to shift many of the infrastructure costs to taxpayers.

“It opens a huge can of worms,” said Collin. “It exempts him from a lot of the normal standards.”

For example, the measure says the county must approve a financing plan for an eight-mile road to connect Deer Creek Hills to Highway 50. But it is silent on just what that plan entails. Although Myers has said he will pay for the road himself, the ballot language makes no guarantees. The development could also increase traffic congestion on the nearby Jackson Highway, which already has the worst traffic grade, “Level of service F,” during peak hours.

Similarly, no mention is made of who will foot the bill for police and fire services to this far-flung portion of the county.

And it’s not entirely clear where the water needed for the residents will come from. Myers had proposed taking water from the Cosumnes River during high flow years, and storing it underground, but it is not clear whether there would be enough available, and the development might necessitate pumping groundwater from other areas.

And the measure’s senior-zoning provision would make it easier to get approval for these kinds of seniors’ projects, even if they lie outside the USB. County planner Martin Strauss said he expects it won’t be long after passage of measure O that someone else applies under the senior-housing zoning for another project outside the USB.

Much of the eastern portion of the county is owned by Myers, his partner Linda Clifford and the Tsakapoulos family, who are notorious for rezoning ag-land to suburban-style residential designations and building projects.

Myers has recruited some high-profile support of his own for the measure. Former Sheriff Glen Craig is featured in one of the television spots. District Attorney Jan Scully has lent her name to the cause as well. One of the most important endorsements comes from the Sacramento Central Labor Council.

“People are stampeding here from the Bay Area. We’ve got to do something to expand our housing stock,” said Labor Council Secretary Bill Camp. Camp said he doesn’t believe the USB should be thrown out, but that it shouldn’t be set in stone. “The decisions we made 10 years ago have to be revisited in the context of the current market,” said Camp.

Many assume that the labor council supports the project because it will mean more jobs for the building trades. That may be true in part, but Myers has a reputation among labor folks for paying good wages and always hiring union labor.

More importantly, Myers once publicly took anti-union Gov. Pete Wilson to task during the dedication of a freeway bridge Myers built in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake.

“Here Wilson was, trying to cut our throats, doing anything and everything he could to keep working people down,” said Camp.

During the ceremony, Wilson lauded Myers for finishing the project well ahead of schedule and under cost. But Myers, a wealthy Republican, declined credit, pointedly remarking that the work couldn’t have gotten done without union labor. As Camp tells it, it was an obvious slap in Wilson’s face, one that won him Camp’s enduring respect. “I guess you could say that made a big impression on me,” said Camp.

The labor council has not contributed any money to Measure O, but Camp left open the possibility that the council would do some phone banking on Myers’ behalf.

Myers’ campaign has been completely self-financed. He has spent almost $800,000 of his own money on the campaign so far. The other side has raised only about $28,000. That’s an approximate ration of 25-1. Rather than pay for television ads, the No on O campaign has relied on a few hundred small lawn signs that read, “Nix the Hoax,” thousands of inexpensive fliers and word of mouth.

Cecchettini has spent countless hours and more than $1,000 of her own money fighting Measure O, earning this year’s title of environmentalist of the year from the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

It’s a bit ironic. Cecchettini, a horse rancher who has lived in rural communities most of her life, is not your typical lefty environmentalist.

“I’m not the kind of person who is automatically opposed to development. My initial concern was just what it was going to do to our rural ambiance here,” she said.

But over the years, she has become an environmentalist out of necessity and has made a natural alliance with the anti-sprawl warriors who live in the city. "I wasn’t really thinking that way five years ago. This whole process has added a whole new dimension to my life. It’s a good thing."