Onward, sprawl

Recession and real-estate collapse be damned: Sacramento-area leaders and developers continue to plot to grow the suburbs

In February, the city of Folsom put up new city-limit signs along a 3,500-acre rectangle of farmland. Some call the expansion sprawl; other say the city had nowhere else to go.

In February, the city of Folsom put up new city-limit signs along a 3,500-acre rectangle of farmland. Some call the expansion sprawl; other say the city had nowhere else to go.

Even after the recession and real-estate collapse, the cities of Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Folsom still aim to expand and “sprawl” (see pink-colored areas for proposed city growth). What’s more, a $500 million, six-lane, 35-mile-long “connector” (see gold line) is being planned to connect all three new-growth areas. Federal dollars and countywide Measure A sales tax will pay for most of the new expressway.

As bad omens go, the dead mall in Elk Grove is tough to beat. The hulking, half-built Elk Grove Promenade makes a too-fitting symbol of the real-estate collapse and the end of seemingly unlimited suburban sprawl.

It’s like a ghostly shipwreck, warning Elk Grove’s civic leaders: “Turn back, before it’s too late.” Even the name of company that went bankrupt trying to build this mall, General Growth Properties, seems a little bit on the nose. Turn back.

Elk Grove is not turning back.

Instead, the once-booming city is pushing to expand its sphere of influence—the reach of the city’s land-use authority—and then eventually annex about 8,000 acres to its south and east, pushing farther into the Cosumnes River basin, farmland and critical wildlife habitat. If approved, the city would grow by 30 percent, overnight.

There’s even a new developer promising to restart the wreck of the Elk Grove Promenade. The company is called The Howard Hughes Corporation.

True, there’s not a lot of demand right now for new subdivisions and malls. Nobody’s talking about sprawl these days; it’s all about recession, foreclosures, stagnation.

So it might seem counterintuitive—maybe even a little crazy—to put so much land in play for new development.

And yet …

• The city of Folsom has almost successfully annexed a 3,500-acre swath of oak woodlands and farmland on its southern border, instantly adding 25 percent to that city’s area.

• Both cities’ development plans would break Sacramento County’s longstanding urban-growth boundary. “This was considered to be the very long-term edge of growth,” says Rob Burness, a former urban planner with the county.

• And Sacramento County itself is considering approval of a massive new development called Cordova Hills—in an area previously considered off-limits to development.

Linking all of these hot spots: Local officials, business groups and developers are pushing forward on a plan to build a $500 million “connector” from Elk Grove to Folsom and on to the suburban El Dorado Hills in the next county.

This will undoubtedly relieve congestion—for a while. But critics say the roadway will just open up the rural east county to even more development.

Add it all up, and it’s not hard to imagine a whole new ring of sprawling suburbs, far away from the urban core.

“Overbuilding the suburbs is precisely how we got into the real-estate crash we’re in now,” says Alex Kelter, former president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, or ECOS. “You step out of rehab, and the first thing you do is head for the bar? That’s not the way out of this mess.”

The mall that built itself a city

“It’s no secret that Elk Grove has always thumbed its nose at other jurisdictions,” says Chris Tooker, a member of the Sacramento County Local Agency Formation Commission. “They are just bound and determined to go off and do things their own way.”

His agency will ultimately decide—probably by this summer—whether to approve Elk Grove’s application to expand. The board is mostly made up of elected officials from other government agencies, cities and special districts. Tooker is the board’s elected-at-large public member. He seems skeptical.

He calls the environmental review of the proposal so far “woefully insufficient,” and also says “Elk Grove should be looking inside of its own boundaries” for infill opportunities to address the “jobs-housing balance.”

Elk Grove has a long history of pushing that urban limit.

In the 1990s, developers tried to get county approval for a regional shopping mall on the site of the old Lent Ranch, down the road from the town of Elk Grove. The proposed site was right next to the county’s Urban Service Boundary, the long-term limit for development.

The whole idea behind the USB, established in 1993, is to require development to proceed in a more or less orderly and efficient fashion. Inside the USB, services such as roads, sewers, schools, transit, police and fire protection can be added on incrementally—not spread out over ever farther-flung exurbs.

That’s supposed to be good for the environment, and for taxpayers.

County officials reasoned that sticking a shopping mall right next to the USB would almost certainly open the farmland south of the mall to runaway sprawl, and they rejected the mall proposal.

But in 2000, Elk Grove-area residents went to the ballot to form their own city. The incorporation effort was largely bankrolled by developers, and the company pushing the Lent Ranch Mall, M&H Realty Partners, turned out to be the biggest campaign contributor to the candidates for Elk Grove’s first city council.

In the spring of 2000, voters approved the incorporation of the new city of Elk Grove. In the spring of 2001, the new Elk Grove City Council approved the construction of the mall.

And the city’s been sprawling ever since. Just 12 years old, Elk Grove is already the second-largest city in Sacramento County. In 2005, it was declared America’s fastest-growing city.

There’s something in Elk Grove’s “civic culture” that makes it want to grow, says Mike Eaton. “It’s pretty clear that the idea behind the sphere is to create more shoppers for that mall,” he said. Eaton used to be director of the Cosumnes River Preserve, just a few miles from Elk Grove’s proposed new southern boundary.

The farmland that is being proposed for annexation is a core part of a complicated habitat-conservation plan that is being developed between local governments and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Cranes and hawks and other birds use the farms for foraging before returning to the wetlands south. The farms also provide an important buffer between the suburbs and the preserve, and the floodplains of the Cosumnes River and nearby Deer Creek. The farms also provide an important buffer between the suburbs and the Cosumnes River.

“The city wants to urbanize everything that’s not right in the floodplain,” says Eaton. “But if we build right up to the floodplain, that’s going to doom the cranes and the hawks.”

City officials readily acknowledge that there will be significant environmental impacts if the area is developed. But they say that those will be addressed as plans get more specific. For now, the city wants to bring the land into its sphere as part of a long-range plan to create more jobs in the city. Right now, the city has 150,000 residents, but only about 30,000 jobs.

The city says the new land is needed to help address that imbalance between jobs and housing.

“We’re looking 30, 40, 50 years out,” says Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis, who says the new land will be high density and job centers, “not rooftops.”

Davis added that he thinks developments south of the USB is coming, sooner or later. “If you build all the way up to Kammerer Road, at some point, it’s going to develop. This plan puts the city in the driver’s seat. Not the developers.”

But Elk Grove’s own market study, commissioned by the city and carried out by the Center for Strategic Economic Research in 2010, notes that the city already has 3,000 acres of vacant land available. At most, according to the study, Elk Grove needs an additional “200 to 1,400 acres” to accommodate modest growth in retail and office construction over the next 20 years. That’s far less than the 8,000 acres of farmland it’s looking to pull into its sphere of influence.

Eaton says there are better way to solve the jobs and housing imbalance. The city is struggling with foreclosures, gasoline is more than $4 a gallon, again, it’s increasingly difficult for local government to provide basic services.

“And Elk Grove’s solutions is—drumroll please—more sprawl!” says Eaton. “I truly believe that what they are doing is criminal.”

Folsom annexation blues

The cows munching grass along White Rock Road didn’t go to the city. The city came to them.

Back in February of this year, the city of Folsom put up new city-limit signs along a 3,500-acre rectangle of farmland and oak-studded hills south of Highway 50, nearly completing the process of annexing these pastures into the city.

Environmental and Folsom-citizen groups fought the city’s growth-annexation plan for years and years. The city completed a “sphere of influence” process, similar to what Elk Grove is attempting now, more than a decade ago.

In 2004, residents managed to get a ballot measure qualified that would have blocked growth south of Highway 50. But the city got it thrown out in court. Tooker voted to support Folsom’s sphere of influence years ago, and the annexation this year.

The city of Folsom is almost finished annexing 3,500 acres of farmland south of Highway 50. It put up new city-limit signs in February.

Photo by Cosmo Garvin

“I don’t think it’s sprawl. Not in the context of Folsom. They really had nowhere else to go,” says Tooker, noting that the city is hemmed in on threes sides by the cities of Roseville and Citrus Heights, and on its northern border by Folsom Lake.

And the city agreed to several conditions. It has to follow more modern-planning principles, invest in public transit, and preserve a third of the land in open space.

Figuring out how to bring water to the urban frontier will be trickier. The city is right on the American River, but is already using all of the water from the American that it legally can, and can’t draw more without robbing its downstream neighbors or hurting flows for salmon and other native fish.

There’s not nearly enough groundwater to help. The local water table is already overtaxed by existing development.

So Folsom has struck a deal with Natomas Central Mutual Water Company, which happens to own some water rights on the Sacramento River, near the town of Freeport—clear across the county.

The idea is to build new pipes to pump 8,000-acre feet of water from Freeport to Folsom. The pipes will cost of about $250 million, mostly paid for by Folsom ratepayers.

Along the way, those pipes will travel through miles of rural east Sacramento County. “And chances are, those pipes will be sized to induce even more growth,” said David Mogavero, president of the California Planning and Conservation League.

Rancho’s college town

Traveling south from Folsom’s southern frontier, White Rock Road hooks up with Grant Line Road. The two-lane Grant Line runs south, then southeast all the way to Elk Grove. The whole way, it closely parallels the county’s urban growth limit, the USB.

If you Google “Cordova Hills,” the first thing that comes up in the search results reads “Cordova Hills is a proposed project located within the Urban limit lines of Sacramento County.”

In fact, the would-be developers of Cordova Hills—a proposed 2,700-acre master-planned community—even highlights the importance the two-decade-old boundary as a selling point for their project: “Cordova Hills lies within this long-established USB.”

But only just. In fact, until recently, this land would have been considered too far from the existing urban area to qualify for development. But recently, the county board of supervisors—considered by some to be the most pro-growth board in many years—loosened the rules a bit.

New-growth areas now can be approved outside what is called the “urban policy area,” but still within the USB, if they meet certain criteria. Projects can get credit for including higher-density housing or public transportation, and efforts to comply with clean-air and climate-change laws.

Cordova Hills, as it’s drawn up now, checks off several of those boxes. A big part of the reason the county board of supervisors agreed to consider the Cordova Hills project was a promised 6,000-student university, to be operated by Catholic group the Legionaries of Christ.

“The board was intrigued by that,” said county planner Tricia Stevens. But the economic collapse and sexual-abuse scandals have taken their toll on the church, too, and last year, the Legionaries announced they were pulling out of project.

The developers insist that a university will still be an integral part of the project. But they want to the keep the project moving forward while they look for another partner.

“Our issue is that this development is just too premature. We need to give infill and close in development more of a chance to succeed,” says former planner Burness. There are thousands of acres along Jackson Highway, for example, that are closer to infrastructure, closer to transit and less environmentally damaging, he says.

But “premature” is not a checkbox in the county’s new criteria point system for approving new growth. “We’re looking at whether or not it meets the criteria,” says Stevens.

The outer ring

If you drive Grant Line Road today—probably best to pick a Sunday—it’s a somewhat bucolic drive along a two-lane country road.

During the week, the road gets congested with commuters making their way from Elk Grove and Folsom and the Highway 50 connector.

Enter the “Capital SouthEast Connector”: a $500 million highway proposed to join the sprawling frontier of Elk Grove to the sprawling frontier of Folsom—and beyond, to El Dorado Hills.

Backers of the project—which would be 35 miles long, and four to six lanes wide—say the roadway is desperately needed to give some relief to those commuters.

“There’s more and more congestion on the freeways, and that system can’t be expanded anymore,” says Tom Zlotkowski, director of the Capital SouthEast Connector Joint Powers Authority. The JPA is a partnership between the county, Elk Grove, Folsom, Rancho Cordova and El Dorado County.

Zlotkowski says the connector will relieve some of the congestion on highways 99 and 50, and also offer “congestion-free” travel between the new-growth areas in the east county.

But critics say the new lanes will fill up as fast as they are built. “We can’t build our way out of congestion. We just can’t,” says Mogavero.

He may be onto something. Zlotkowski noted that the plans for the connector don’t anticipate new expansion south of Elk Grove, right next to the proposed southern end of the connector. The plans also don’t take into account a major development at Cordova Hills, even though the two projects are side by side.

“It will probably congest the connector a little more than it should,” Zlotkowski acknowledged.

About $115 million of money needed to build the connector comes from a countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation projects, which was approved by voters as Measure A back in 2004. Another $200 million comes from a pot of state and federal money divvied up by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments in the area Metropolitan Transportation Plan.

That leaves a little more than $100 million left to make up. Zlotkowski says the shortfall could come from developer fees, or from users fees such as a toll. Or it could come from another tax measure that would go to voters. Call it “son of Measure A.”

That could be a tough sell politically. Environmentalists split on Measure A back in 2004, when voters approved it; many opposed it because it favored roads and highways heavily over public transit.

And they noted that for years developers have been buying up farmland next to Grant Line Road along the proposed route of the connector outside the USB.

They feared the new highway, traveling right along the growth boundary, would promote sprawl throughout the east county.

As it’s designed now, the connector—Zlotkowski calls it a “parkway”—would have 14 interchanges over its entire length. “We’re trying to control the access as much as we can,” he says. Control the access, and perhaps you can control the sprawl. With the roadway, and without better planning, the sprawl will be worse, says Zlotkowski.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what’s going to be out there if we do nothing.”

But the growth-inducing impacts of the connector are almost certain to be fought over in court.

Today, Grant Line is a country road. But it’s not too hard to imagine it rebooted as future suburban expressway—traveling along the outer ring of sprawl.

Turn back, says Mogavero, that kind of development is not the future we want.

He’s been an architect, specializing in infill development, and an environmental activist in Sacramento for decades. Recently, he’s been talking to more developers and planners from around the state.

“The market is changing,” he says. “Developers don’t want to be anywhere but the built urban areas. I think that’s got to rub off on Sacramento eventually.”

Late last year, the Urban Land Institute did a study of the state’s real-estate picture, specifically in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego. The report, “The New California Dream,” asserts that none of the traditional large-lot, single-family homes need to be built in the state to meet demand—because demand is falling, and inventories are still high.

Which is why people like Mogavero and Burness are trying to get local electeds to stop building the outer ring of suburbs before its too late.

“You can see the jurisdictions and the developers and speculators lining up,” says former county planner Burness. “It’s just so premature. There’s a lot of vacant land. The market is stopped in its tracks.

“Why not give infill a chance?”