Pool party

Environmental activists stop major Sacramento County development—for now

Sacramento County officials recently put the brakes on a plan to develop hundreds of acres of open space at Mather Field with new housing and roadways after dozens of people clogged a public meeting and voiced their opposition. Speakers expressed anger at the prospects of increased traffic and congestion in the Mather community and, especially, the loss of preserved open space and seasonal ponds called vernal pools.

Now, questions remain of how a public process that supposedly included stakeholder input went so far astray.

Sean Wirth, with the Sierra Club’s Mother Lode chapter, spoke out at the September 16 meeting. He later told SN&R that even though the county has, for the time, made the right move, he doesn’t think opponents to the development plan can put down their guard just yet.

“I’m going to assume the county will need to be shepherded along as they continue to look at this project,” he said.

Wirth says the very way Sacramento County approaches development is profit-driven and needs to be overhauled. “We need to develop in a way that has an ecological paradigm, not just a profit paradigm,” Wirth said.

For Emily Butler, executive director of environmental group Sacramento Splash, the fact that the community’s voices seemed to be disregarded for so long has hardly dampened her outlook.

“This is an example of the process working,” said Butler, who says she uses Mather vernal pools as an outdoor classroom.

The open space of Mather Air Force Base was gifted to the county in 1993 under the condition that it be kept and maintained as a preserve. Of primary concern were the parcel’s vernal pools—scattered seasonal ponds that fill with rainwater in the winter and spring and host an array of unique, and in some cases imperiled, plants and animals. Vernal pools were once prevalent across the Sacramento Valley but have been almost entirely eliminated, replaced by farmland and development.

But the county never honored the agreement it made in late 1990s to protect the land, according to Eva Butler, Emily Butler’s mother and the founder of Sacramento Splash. In 2006, the county presented a development plan that Butler says disregarded the major concerns that Splash had outlined during several meetings in 2005. The project description included 512 acres of new urban housing and a major roadway expansion.

The project was going to destroy two vernal pools that are especially critical to the Splash program, which brings groups of school children to the location to study the aquatic habitats.

“There had been consensus that those two pools needed to be preserved,” Eva Butler said. “It was nonnegotiable for us.”

Before the conclusion of the meeting two weeks ago, Emily spoke to the Board of Supervisors and called the county’s environmental impact report “a string of broken promises” and said that “the vast majority of our input has been systematically ignored.”

Supervisor Don Nottoli says the county was not trying to pull off a swindle. The reason so many opponents came forward at the last hour was, he says, simply a realization in a young but maturing community of what was about to happen in their backyard.

“The plan went from the conceptual and theoretical to the real,” Nottoli told SN&R.

The county is now going back to the drawing board, Nottoli said.

“It’s not like all the work that’s been done is going to be thrown out, but it will serve as a backdrop for, ‘Now what?’”