Mitigation litigation

Nonprofits file new suit alleging city is ignoring multiple laws on annexation

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the August 30, 2018, issue.

Years before thumb drives, Sacramentans knew “USB” as an acronym for the “urban services boundary.” In the county’s 1993 general plan, the USB was established as “the ultimate boundary of the urban area.” Now, it’s at the root of the latest clash between local developers and environmentalists.

Earlier this year, the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCo, approved a project that would add 1,156 acres of farmland to the city of Elk Grove’s sphere of influence. The commission’s 4-3 decision brings Elk Grove one step closer to potentially annexing the area just east of State Route 99 for development. According to the project application, Elk Grove “has no remaining large unplanned blocks of land available for long-term planning and future growth within its boundaries.”

Jim Pachl, legal chair for the Sierra Club Mother Lode Chapter, doesn’t accept that rationale. He claims that there are over 4,000 acres of vacant city land already zoned for urban development. With unfinished projects scattered across town, Pachl charges that the 99 expansion is an unnecessary case of urban sprawl—one that puts the county and its residents at a crossroads.

“Are we going to confine the development to the USB,” Pachl asked, “or are we going to bust the boundary?”

LAFCo’s February approval favored the latter, causing several community members to call for reconsideration. Letters to LAFCo staff cited a range of concerns pertaining to water supply, traffic congestion, air quality, loss of agriculture, harm to wildlife and insufficient mitigation options. In May, LAFCo denied reconsidering its decision. A month later, five groups—Environmental Council of Sacramento, Sierra Club, Friends of the Swainson’s Hawk, Habitat 2020 and Friends of the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge—filed a petition for the Sacramento Superior Court to issue a writ of mandate and overrule LAFCo’s findings.

The petition contends that LAFCo commissioners made a few major errors in their consideration of the project. First, LAFCo certified an environmental impact report that fails to account for water supply and loss of habitat. Second, LAFCo acted against its governing legislation by failing to discourage sprawl and preserve prime agricultural lands. Third, LAFCo has not yet adopted policies that make them eligible to review the sphere of influence application.

Groups backing the petition are running out of options to preserve the land in question and keep the USB intact. If the court deems LAFCo’s approval valid, regional planning efforts could be disrupted.

“The purpose of the USB was to provide some tool for planning regional infrastructure,” Pachl said. “It’s a little hard to plan if anyone can plop a subdivision out there.”

LAFCo’s executive officer declined to comment about the commission’s findings, citing the litigation.