Tsakopoulos, schools and sprawl

Does Placer County need a college town?

A new college is proposed for western Placer County.

A new college is proposed for western Placer County.

Angelo Tsakopoulos is raising eyebrows with his offer to donate a major parcel of land for the creation of a new university in western Placer County. But is the land donation a benevolent gift, or a Trojan horse?

“Not many land developers would undertake something like this. It’s costly, it’s complicated and it’s giving away an awful lot of land,” said Tom Lumbrazo, a planning consultant who for six months has worked for Tsakopoulos on the university plan.

Lumbrazo, speaking on behalf of the developer, said Tsakopoulos was willing to undertake the task because of the dire need for a private university in booming Placer County.

The project may be costly and complicated, but there is also potentially a very big payoff at the end. The developer has his eye on not only a new university, but also a whole college town built on land he owns in the area.

“It’s a ploy. It’s just a bald-faced move to try and turn public opinion in favor of development,” said Katie Green, a Placer resident and environmental activist.

Tsakopoulos floated the idea to donate 400 to 600 acres to an as yet unnamed college earlier this year. He has also offered to set up an endowment that would raise up to $100 million to build the school.

A university is needed, say its backers, to accommodate the boom in college-age students in the greater Sacramento region. Sacramento is unique in having 2 million people and few private universities. The school proposed by Tsakopoulos would probably accommodate 5,000 to 8,000 students.

“The chance to create a private university really only comes around once every hundred years. This opportunity is really unique and awesome for the region,” said Ted Eliopoulos, president of Actium Development Corp., which works for Tsakopoulos on Placer County projects.

At least two private universities have expressed interest, he added. Eliopoulos made no bones about the desire to build a college town around the university. Tsakopoulos owns about 4,000 acres in the immediate vicinity of the site.

“The fact that there is so much acreage under single ownership makes it ideal for a college town,” Eliopoulos said.

Backers of the university are also touting the environmental benefits of a college campus.

“This is an area with poor soil, little habitat and no trees,” said Lumbrazo. He suggested that the campus would include a good deal of open space and provide developer fees for the county to purchase more.

“We can do more than preservation. We could actually bring back species that aren’t there right now,” he added.

Placer County supervisor Rex Bloomfield called the university offer “typical” and described it as a dangling carrot to promote suburban development.

“Everybody understands the demand [for new university space] is overwhelming. A new university is a great idea. But where and at what cost? Is there any infrastructure out there? Is it wise to put a college in the middle of an undeveloped area?” asked Bloomfield. “If we put a university there, it is going to open up the whole western county to suburban development.”

Because the college proposal is still in its infancy, Placer County officials have yet to examine the connection between the proposed site and a controversial transportation project in the area.

The proposed college site sits right next to one possible route of a future “Placer Parkway,” a highway project being pushed by county transportation officials that would connect Highway 65 near Roseville to Highway 99 near the Sacramento International Airport.

Critics have said that the parkway is sure to become a sprawl vector, opening up a vast stretch of agricultural land to suburban development. The transportation agency has been considering four possible routes for the parkway. Two of those alternatives run through property Tsakopoulos owns.

The Placer County Transportation Planning Agency, however, has been adamant that the parkway would not be growth-inducing because the new road is not to have any on- and off-ramps. No exits, the argument goes, means no ability for new developments to access the road. The no off-ramp policy would presumably preclude access for the new university, although Tsakopoulos is likely to ask for it.

“We think there is an excellent opportunity for the university to take advantage of the [proposed] parkway,” said Eliopoulos.

And so, the offer by Tsakopoulos to build a college straddling the future Placer Parkway is perhaps the strongest indication yet that the parkway may be destined to become a suburban thoroughfare.

“It’s completely contradictory,” remarked Bloomfield. “Placer Parkway is not supposed to induce growth. But if you put a college there that is exactly what it will do.”

Placer County Transportation Planning Agency spokeswoman Kathryn Mathews said that the offer from Tsakopoulos to donate the land for a new university did “raise some eyebrows” among PCTPA board members, but that there has been no official inquiry as to how the college might ultimately affect the proposed parkway project.

“It piqued my interest,” said Mathews, but she added that the no off-ramp policy hasn’t changed.

The PCTPA approved the parkway conceptual plan on June 27. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments followed suit on July 19. The project still faces several years of study before it is ultimately approved and built.