Northern exposure

Development of the northern territories is back on the table

Developers are anxious to get on with building on 10,000 acres deep in a floodplain, from North Natomas almost to the Sutter County line.

Developers are anxious to get on with building on 10,000 acres deep in a floodplain, from North Natomas almost to the Sutter County line.

The Sacramento City Council resumes long-stalled discussions on developing the Natomas Basin next week. Development of the so-called northern territories would expand city limits to the Sutter County line and potentially urbanize more than 10,000 acres of farmland and wildlife habitat.

A public workshop on developing the area, now dubbed the “Joint Vision” because of a rough agreement struck between the city and Sacramento County in 2002, will take place during the city council’s evening session April 25. The Joint Vision pact permits the city to guide development of the area in exchange for sharing revenue with the county.

According to the city’s long-range-planning department, the council could choose to move forward with a “sphere of influence” application that would allow the city to plan for annexing the area. The council also could direct staff to develop a community plan that would include a finer-tuned blueprint of the area’s eventual build-out.

The 10,000 acres would accommodate up to 100,000 more people and nearly double Sacramento’s urban footprint in the basin. It would be worth billions of dollars to landowners who have been buying and selling parcels for years in the once-productive farmland, jockeying for position in anticipation of the city’s northern expansion.

Those landowners have been champing at the bit to gain approval for development, even though it lies deep within the Natomas floodplain and provides critical habitat for several threatened native species.

Last year, landowners teamed up with Sheriff Lou Blanas and developer Angelo Tsakopoulos to cobble together a proposal that would have shunted some development profits toward a new Kings arena in exchange for fast-tracking new subdivisions. (See “The great Natomas land rush”; SN&R Cover Story; February 24, 2005.) The complicated proposal fell apart after some large landowners backed out of the plan.

Environmentalists argue that any plan to develop the area would violate an already fragile habitat conservation plan (HCP) that protects threatened species in the area, including the giant garter snake and the Swainson’s hawk.

The HCP assumes that the rest of the Natomas basin will remain undeveloped. If more development is approved, that HCP is likely to be thrown out. Attempts to build within the habitat area may wind up in court.

Heightened anxiety about potential flooding further clouds the Joint Vision plan. Because the Natomas basin is designated as a major floodplain, some have called for a building moratorium in the area.

Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn says that concerns over development of the basin, along with flood worries, have left him uncertain about how to proceed.

“I don’t think we know enough of the answers yet to say yes or no,” said Cohn, adding that he won’t support development for development’s sake. “What are the community-wide benefits? It can’t just be for a lot of people to make a bunch of money.”

Cohn said development of the northern territories ought to be part of the city’s general-plan process. The city could decide not to develop the area, but he wonders if it is willing to accept greater urbanization within present city limits. “We have to take a look at where else development will go,” he said. For example, he said, the central city could accommodate another 50,000 residents, but only if Sacramento accepts much higher housing densities.

If the city moves forward with development of the Joint Vision, he said, it should depart from the usual pattern of suburban development by including more multi-family dwellings and increased reliance on public transportation.

“If we just do business as usual, we’ll have no farmland. We’ll have traffic congestion out of control. Smog will get worse,” Cohn said.

The local environmental community sees the Joint Vision in a darker light. It will be an “ethically bankrupt disaster,” said Graham Brownstein, director of the Environmental Council of Sacramento. The organization called for a moratorium on any expansion because of the Natomas basin’s flood risk.

“How can we even be talking about approving more development there?” he asked. “It’s just insane.”