Ose goes 0 for 2

Plan to jam through Natomas shopping center grinds to a halt

Doug Ose tried to push through a Natomas shopping center before the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s building moratorium kicked in.

Doug Ose tried to push through a Natomas shopping center before the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s building moratorium kicked in.

Even the millionaires are having a bad year. First Doug Ose loses a nasty primary battle for a U.S. congressional seat to fellow Republican Tom McClintock. Now, Ose’s run out of time to push through a major shopping mall in the Natomas flood plain.

Critics of the “Natomas Landing” project—at the corner of Del Paso and El Centro roads, called it a “shopping mall on a cul-de-sac.” Jonathan Burke, who is part of an ad hoc group of nearby neighbors calling themselves Concerned Residents of Westlake and North Natomas, likened the 69-acre project to Alcatraz: “There’s only one way in and one way out.” Like others in the gated Westlake community across the street from the proposed project, Burke is worried about constant traffic gridlock.

And the land isn’t zoned for big retail. Ose was asking for a 400,000-square-foot regional shopping center on land that was slated for offices and housing. In May of 2008, the Sacramento City Planning Commission called it “absolutely the wrong project at the wrong place” and voted 5-0 against the project.

So Ose went back to the drawing board a made a couple of tweaks. The retail component was scaled back a bit, and with the help of the city’s Development Services Department, Ose brought the project back to the planning commission on August 28.

But there was one big change in the normal planning process. City development staff told the commissioners that they would not be allowed to make a recommendation on the project—they could only offer their comments. Then it would be up to the mayor and city council to decide whether to approve the project.

“It was bizarre,” said commissioner Michael Notestine, who has put in more than 13 years on the planning commission. In that time, he says, city staff has never handled a project in this way.

“It was presented to us at the 11th hour. There was no forewarning,” agreed Darrel Woo, who currently serves as chairman of the commission. “I was frustrated and a bit befuddled.”

The recommendations of the commissioners are never binding on the city council, which has the ultimate approval authority. But the planning commission has enormous weight on the city council’s decision, and this looked to some project opponents like a way to short circuit the commission. In the end, the commissioners refused to comment on the project at all. Notestine told SN&R that the project seemed better, at least on the surface, than it had in May. “But I felt like if I made any comment on it, it would be taken as approval.”

It was one more in a series of strange twists for Ose’s ill-fated project. Earlier this year, the city “accidentally” issued Ose permits to start grading the area for construction, despite the fact that the city council had yet to approve the project and the planning commission had given it the thumbs down.

When the city caught its mistake, Ose got frustrated. He was quoted in The Sacramento Bee as saying, “I’m trying to get my building permit by midnight on December 7.”

Without those permits, any project proposed in the Natomas floodplain is on hold—indefinitely, until Sacramento river levees and other flood protections are improved to meet the new standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That’s put pressure on the city to get as many projects in the pipeline as possible, to keep development fees coming in. “People in Natomas are rushing to beat the FEMA deadline. It’s coming from the top,” Notestine explained.

Greg Bitter, the city’s principal planner, said that the unusual process “was a timing issue,” and that it was believed the project could be ready to go to the city council on September 16.

That would have allowed enough time for Ose to get his permits and break ground before December 7. “It was an unusual circumstance,” Bitter added. “Hindsight being 20/20, I can’t say we’d do it that way again.”

And late last week, Ose decided time had run out on the project; he would not pursue building permits before the FEMA deadline.

Bitter says the project will probably come back to the planning commission at the end of this year—but any actual construction is in limbo. “Best-case scenario is 2011 or 2012 before the city can start issuing those permits again,” he explained.