Sacramento County Board of Supervisors reverses decades of smart growth planning overnight

When people criticize California for being stuck in the ‘60s, they’re usually talking about hippies and flower power. Yet last week, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors took us in a suburban sprawl time machine back to the 1960s with their approval of the Cordova Hills project.  

Cordova Hills is nothing less than old sprawl wine in a barely new bottle, straight from the days of paving over paradise and having to drive to do anything – shop, go to school, go to work, go to the dry cleaners, you get the idea. Proposing to build up to 8,000 new housing units upon 2700 of acres of open space, ranch lands and seasonal wetlands, Cordova Hills is classic “leap frog” development: a project completely unconnected to any other town, city or other developed area. If eating up more open space is not enough for you, Cordova Hills will drive up air pollution and carbon emissions with all the car travel this far-flung, throwback lifestyle requires.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors somehow managed to miss what land use planners and local elected officials up and down the State have known for years: California is no longer the home of sprawl—it’s the home of a quiet revolution in land use and transportation planning. Cordova Hills is the exact opposite of what Californians want, evidenced both in polls and by the way they are increasingly making housing decisions that favor more close in locations. In fact the most recent housing market studies suggest that the Sacramento region is more than over-supplied with the kind of housing Cordova Hills will provide—even considering population growth to 2035. Regions are quickly realizing the importance, and benefits, of smarter land use, more transportation choices, and putting people, jobs and services closer together. Doing so is better for the planet, better for public health, and cheaper for local governments and households, not to mention what Californians actually want out of their communities.

So how did Cordova Hills get approved? It’s not as though the Board of Supervisors was unaware of these issues. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is arguably the nation’s leader in sustainable regional planning, and less than a year ago, to significant praise from environmentalists and homebuilders alike, adopted its Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), the land use and transportation plan required under California’s SB 375 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—which didn’t envision any development at all in this location. The foundation for this SCS was the Blueprint Plan the region developed by consensus nearly ten years ago to encourage infill, preserve open space and farmland, and minimize negative environmental impacts.

The power of both the blueprint and the SCS processes is that they brought together literally thousands of local residents, businesses, local governments, and community groups to jointly envision their future. And they found a better future—one that reduced traffic congestion, cleaned the air and created a stronger, more integrated region. The only way the region can achieve this vision of a better future is if they act jointly to implement it—which many communities are doing in good faith. Sacramento, West Sacramento, Roseville, Rancho Cordova, Lincoln—to name just a few—are doing their part to make sure this regional vision comes to life. And then Sacramento County decides to ignore a decade worth of regional consensus building with a decision that threatens the quality of life improvements this award winning plan had offered. The Board, in fact, had to actually change change its General Plan and expand its urban service boundaries—both drastic measures—to accommodate the project. Talk about out of touch.

And it’s not like no one told them. Hundreds of community voices provided hours of testimony against the project. The Sacramento Bee editorialized strongly against it (twice!).  No less than Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, author of SB 375 and the Senator who represents the project site felt compelled to send the Board a letter reminding them of what SB 375 was meant to achieve. Mike McKeever, head of SACOG, also testified to the Board about the project’s shortcomings and how the approval could jeopardize the region’s transportation funding.  All, apparently, to no avail.

There are years of further permit fights ahead for the Cordova Hills project, and its final construction is far from certain. But with this action, the Sacramento Board of Supervisors proves itself out of step with the new paradigm of growth in California: real, sustainable development, sensitive to the environment and in line with the lifestyle preferences of 21st Century Californians. 

This post was co-written by my NRDC colleague, Justin Horner.

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