Living on the edge

As Sacramento County gears up to grow, the infill vs. expansion debate continues

Eastern Sacramento County cow-tipping point for growth.

Eastern Sacramento County cow-tipping point for growth.

Photo illustration by INDIA CURRY

The future of rural eastern Sacramento County could include both modern townhouses and rolling hills, trees and grazing cows and the pastoral blurring into the suburban—and all with a city skyline lurking on the horizon. That’s the cover photo on at least one county report on the issue, a perspective that tellingly points to a divide on how and where Sacramento County should grow.

With the county set to adopt this blueprint for the future this week, on November 9, also on the table is a controversial component that makes room for more growth on the edges of Sacramento County, if needed. The county says the proposal balances competing interests, but others, who favor infill projects, say that balance is tipped toward impractical growth.

“It’s ironic that while the city of Sacramento adopted an award-winning smart-growth general [plan], the county meanwhile is developing a plan for more leapfrog development,” Teri Duarte, head of the advocacy group WalkSacramento, said. “Most of the jobs, goods and services that the residents of those communities will need will require the use of an automobile, likely for long distances.”

“We don’t see any need to open up new areas [for development] and we don’t want to see an uptick in growth at the periphery,” added Ron Maertz, co-chairman of the Environmental Council of Sacramento’s land-use committee, one of several groups with concerns about the draft plan.

Growth on the edge of developed Sacramento County has been at the heart of an ongoing debate on how and where the county should expand. The shifting fortunes of the county in recent times have also shaped that debate.

During the boom years in the early 2000s, new suburban developments sprouted up and led to an increase in sprawl, big-box stores and traffic. At the same time, some older down-county neighborhoods experienced a decline, first as development spiraled further out in the county, and later when the economy stalled.

With these older communities in mind, local advocates have asked the county to make better use of existing neighborhoods before new ones are built.

“We asked that there be a tie between infill [projects] and development on the periphery, but the county was not willing to consider it,” Maertz said. That approach centered on targeting existing space and infrastructure for new projects first, before considering developing open space outside the county’s urban-growth boundaries.

Instead, Sacramento County drafted a plan that aims to accommodate both economic and environmental interests.

“We tried to find an approach that made everyone the least unhappy,” Leighann Moffitt, a county planner said. She added that the current economic uncertainty has made it difficult to anticipate how much Sacramento County will grow, and how much new housing will be needed. (At one point there was a plan for opening up about 15,000 acres along Jackson Highway and Grant Line Road.)

“This allows us options for housing,” she said of the county’s draft plan, which is part of an overall General Plan for growth through 2030.

As part of the county’s approach, the draft proposal now allows for the possibility of more development, especially in the Cordova Hills, provided the economy rebounds. In order to receive project approval, however, developers will also have to meet measurable smart-growth criteria, including housing density, a mix of housing and commercial amenities, proximity to public transit and jobs, and a small carbon footprint. (Developers have sought to change these requirements into simply guidelines.)

These requirements will also help Sacramento County meet state laws, particularly compliance with Assembly Bill 32, which involves lowering carbon emissions, and Senate Bill 375, which centers on mass transit.

Additionally, Moffitt says the county has a strategy for infill that centers on older commercial corridors such as along Fair Oaks Boulevard or in Natomas. “The Board of Supervisors desired to pursue appropriate economic development activity, including the potential creation of new communities,” Moffitt explained to SN&R. “Restricting approval of such opportunities to a specified amount of infill was not considered desirable or appropriate.”

Still, Maertz is among those who wish such those infill projects would be the future priority for Sacramento County, rather than risk possibly more sprawl and related greenhouse-gas emissions.

“We are concerned this is going forward before the county has an adequate climate-action plan or plan for smart growth,” he said. “We think that needs to be in place before the typical development on the periphery.”