This land was your land
Commission approves hotel project on city property that was once restricted to public use
When the issues of protecting the public’s resources and facilitating development collide in the City of Sacramento, who wins? Is it possible that our city is giving away public land to a developer? Such questions are the story behind the story of the recently approved Captain’s Table hotel project, which is currently headed to the City Council on appeal.
Almost 30 years ago, the California Department of Transportation sold Sacramento a parcel of land between Interstate 5 and the Sacramento River, about a mile south of downtown, for $27,450. It was a pretty good deal, even with the condition that the land be dedicated to public uses.
A reversionary clause placed on the deed of sale by Caltrans read: “It is expressly made a condition herein that the conveyed property be used exclusively for public purposes.” Yet under the project approved by the Sacramento Planning Commission, that land is not going to be used for exclusively public purposes, but for a hotel and a restaurant built by developer Robert Leach.
The clause goes on to say that if the land ceases to be used for exclusively public purposes, that possession of the land will revert to the state. That’s not what’s happening, though. Why was this legal document ignored? The answer could lie in changing societal expectations.
The proposed plan includes three parcels of land that Leach owns totaling 4.76 acres, and two parcels owned by the city totaling 2.47 acres. Leach plans to build a 95-room hotel, 350-seat restaurant and public parking lot on the property.
When Sacramento purchased the land in 1975, then-Vice Mayor Michael Sands signed a resolution that designated the parcel for the future Sacramento River Parkway. The latest Sacramento River Parkway Plan, adopted in October of 1997, lays out the purpose of the parkway concept: to “preserve, protect, and enhance the natural and cultural resources of the parkway.”
The vast majority of that plan designates the land use of the parkway for facilities such as walkways, bicycle trails, piers and scenic viewpoints. However, there is an inclusion at the end of the list of “other river-related commercial uses,” such as the riverfront hotels, restaurants and shops now being pushed by Mayor Heather Fargo and others.
This urban waterfront designation was around before Leach’s project appeared in 1995, but the Captain’s Table area did not fall under that designation. Then Leach introduced his project, and two years later, the city started to embrace the recreational potential for this space of riverfront. But there was still that pesky reversionary clause.
Leach believes that his hotel is compatible with the Sacramento River Parkway Plan: “The parkway plan designates land along the river with several different uses, including urban and commercial. Shouldn’t the River City have river amenities? We are taking a vacant, blighted piece of land and creating revenue from it. We are going to have bike trails, a parking lot for public access to the river and 24-hour security. The community will have a safe place to come down and enjoy the river.”
Yet members of the community around the project don’t like Leach’s vision. Members of a local neighborhood association have exhausted themselves trying to block this development—calling the media, meeting with city officials, researching documents—and eventually they discovered the Caltrans reversionary clause.
Rosalie Dvorak-Remis of the Little Pocket Neighborhood Association has been at the forefront of the opposition to the Captain’s Table project: “We’re challenging this development because it was clear that this parkway was never meant to be truncated. The parcel was supposed to be used as a parkway, for bikers or hikers, not a developer’s pet project.”
The neighborhood association set about to procure all of the documented communication on the project through the California Public Records Act, because they felt they were being left out of the loop. Months later, they are still missing key documents, including a copy of Leach’s lease.
So Dvorak-Remis went to Caltrans attorney Cheryl McNulty and asked for the Caltrans deed and the city resolution, and McNulty told her she did not have them. Dvorak-Remis went to the Office of Administrative Law to get help, and then McNulty sent the OAL a letter saying that there was “no indication that the California Transportation Commission approved or even saw the City’s resolution, as Ms. Dvorak-Remis represents.”
Dvorak-Remis then made a public records request, looked through Caltrans’ library, and found the documents she needed. “They did exist, and they were in McNulty’s department,” said Dvorak-Remis.
In opposing the project, the neighborhood association members have found themselves taking on the state, the city and the mayor’s riverfront vision.
Brad Shirhall, associate planner of the city’s Planning and Building Department, said that his department “supports the project because the area has been underutilized. This is a good opportunity for the city.”
Leach is singing the city’s praises. “The city is great to work with,” Leach said. “The city and the community get a tremendous benefit from this public and private venture.”
Tom Lee in the City Manager’s Office agrees: “We think this is a good project overall for the city. We need more classic hotels in that area, and the riverfront location is a boon.” The city would take in an expected $600,000 a year in hotel tax revenue from the project, as long as it could get around that reversionary clause.
City Manager Bob Thomas sent a letter to Leach on January 22, 2001, referring to the obstacle, writing, “As you know, there are deed restrictions on this property … that will be addressed once your application is submitted for formal review.” Less than two months later, the deed was quitclaimed by Caltrans, releasing all their interests on the land.
According to Leach, the obstacle was easily overcome: “Caltrans said that the hotel and restaurant is a great use for this land. The deed restriction was antiquated. They haven’t done anything like that in 10 years.”
Caltrans spokeswoman Laura Featherstone maintains that the quitclaim was executed because, according to Caltrans’ legal services division, that reversionary clause would not stand up in court if challenged by the city or developer.
“The city purchased that land for fair market value,” Featherstone said. “It’s their land, they can do whatever they want with it.” The land may have been purchased for fair market value, but for a parkway—not for a hotel—which might have carried a higher price tag.
Is this a conflict between the environmental and public interest focuses of the 1970s versus Sacramento’s more recent surge towards sponsoring development? Caltrans would not discuss why they no longer believe in restricting property to public space, except to say, “Caltrans does not make land use decisions. This was not a philosophical change, but rather one that is consistent with policies set out in law.”
Left unaccounted for is the ideological shift behind the law. Why did the state once restrict publicly held land for public uses? Why doesn’t it do so today? Why wouldn’t the city honor its previous pledge to keep the property in public use, rather than transfer it to a developer?
Leach resents the implication that the success of his project is a result of political maneuvering and backroom deals. “I’ve spent seven years on this. Seven years is not a ‘Teflon’ project,” said Leach, “It saddens me that people in this area aren’t enthusiastic about this hotel and restaurant.”
Nonetheless, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the project on August 23, with members condemning the “status quo” and calling the land the way it naturally appears an “eyesore.” The Little Pocket Neighborhood Association plans on appealing the decision to the City Council.
Unless the approval is overturned by the council, which has voiced support for more riverfront development, Leach said construction of the new hotel and restaurant is slated to begin in April.