The Cordova Hills bait and switch

Supervisors approve major suburban-sprawl project Cordova Hills despite public outcry, likely loss of funding, possible lawsuits

Critics say the approval of the Cordova Hills project on the eastern outskirts of Sacramento County will likely spark lawsuits and the loss of federal and state funding.

Critics say the approval of the Cordova Hills project on the eastern outskirts of Sacramento County will likely spark lawsuits and the loss of federal and state funding.

photo illustration by india curry

It’s a process as time-honored as it is ass-backward: Construct a massive development, then worry about filling it with people and businesses later.

The interests behind a nearly 2,700-acre housing and retail development known as Cordova Hills won approval to do just this by baiting elected officials with a promised university they’ve yet to deliver on.

Since local private Catholic school the University of Sacramento backed out of the development pitch two years ago, Cordova Hills LLC has been unable to land a new tenant. This didn’t stop four out of five Sacramento County supervisors from granting an array of approvals that could lead to an 8,000-unit housing boom across a prism of land that brushes along the southern border of Folsom and snakes down the eastern edge of Rancho Cordova.

Only one supervisor thought this wasn’t such a good idea.

Citing “a glut of residential lots in the area and a glut of vacant retail space,” Supervisor Phil Serna told SN&R he didn’t see a need for Cordova Hills, especially once the notion of a university became speculative at best.

“I and a number of speakers questioned the need [for the project],” the District 1 supervisor said of the meeting on January 29.

Additionally, there’s lots of acreage across the region already zoned for university development, several officials pointed out. An area west of Roseville in Placer County is the furthest ahead, with land entitlements and financial incentives. But spots near Mather Air Force Base and the city’s rail yards are also zoned appropriately and in the hunt. All of which potentially stiffens the competition to attract a university campus to Cordova Hills. If no university is built in 30 years, the 23-acre spot is turned over to the county.

Serna was the lone holdout at last week’s five-hour marathon hearing. Along with the lack of an identified university tenant, supervisors had to rationalize their blunt-force approval over concerns that Cordova Hills could single-handedly torpedo the region’s rep as a smart-growth leader, endanger crucial federal transportation dollars, run afoul of the state’s greenhouse-gas-emissions standards and screw up the development plans of neighboring communities.

Mike McKeever, chief executive officer of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, a.k.a. SACOG, outlined many of these problems. With or without the university, the odds of meeting California Air Resources Board’s targets under Senate Bill 375 are sketchy, he said.

“In 2035, we’re on the knife’s edge of meeting the target,” he told supervisors. “And a development that is as much above the regional average in [vehicle miles traveled] and greenhouse-gas emissions as this project would be raises the possibility that … the region would not meet that target.”

The author of S.B. 375, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, is keeping mum on the board’s decision for now. His spokesman told SN&R that Steinberg’s letter to the board of supervisors before last week’s decision was simply informational, leaving it to local officials to interpret whether they were keeping with the spirit of the emissions-control legislation or not.

Others may not wait so long.

Jonathan Ellison, president of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, said his organization was meeting with its environmental attorney this week to discuss the possibility of suing. Ellison noted others have expressed potential interest in joining any legal action.

“There are some other organizations and individuals that are interested if litigation is appropriate,” he told SN&R. “I can’t say whether it is or not.”

Serna said he would be “very surprised” if no litigation attached itself to this project, both because of its size and controversy.

But he was more worried about the precedent last week’s vote set about supervisors being willing to accept bait-and-switch land-use proposals. Cordova Hills garnered steam and overcame an earlier board rejection by making a regional university its centerpiece attraction, Serna pointed out.

“It sends the message that we’re willing to approve these types of projects just based on the promise.”

Meanwhile, the region may pay for the county’s optimism.

The region, which has gained a reputation of being a leader in smart-growth planning over the past decade, could see its political capital reduced by a big, sprawling development like Cordova Hills. McKeever said the trend at both the state and federal levels is to parcel out an increasingly limited pot of transportation funds to high-performing locales.

“If that’s how it’s taken—that Sacramento County is turning away from those regional-growth principles and goals—we’ve got a problem,” he said.