Sacramento County Approves New Sprawl, Rejects the Sustainable Communities Strategy

By Egon Terplan and Ethan Lavine
March 5, 2013

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors is facing heavy criticism and a lawsuit for its decision to approve the Cordova Hills subdivision, a new development for 25,000 residents on what is now rolling hills and ranch land 22 miles east of downtown Sacramento. The development would add thousands of new homes far from the region’s center, violating the Sustainable Communities Strategy that every city and county in the region agreed upon last year. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) observes, the approval goes against decades of smart growth planning in the greater Sacramento area.

Senate Bill 375, the 2008 statewide law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, requires each region in California to develop a coordinated plan — called a Sustainable Communities Strategy — to guide its long-term land use decisions and transportation investments. When the California Legislature approved SB 375 in 2008, many planners thought the law might be a strong tool to limit sprawling development. This action by Sacramento County shows that tougher rules might be necessary to ensure counties don't return to their old ways.

SPUR blogged about the Sacramento region's Sustainable Communities Strategy a few weeks after its approval last May. With that plan, the 22 cities and six counties in the region decided where development can and cannot occur in the decades to come. The Cordova Hills subdivision would add 8,000 residential units, in addition to retail and office space, on 2,419 acres of what is currently rural open space — an area not intended for development under the Sustainable Communities Strategy.

Of course, the only way that SB 375 can be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be if the cities and counties involved in joint planning efforts stick to their agreements. In doing so, California will be able to accommodate millions of new residents in walkable, bikable communities served by public transportation. If more development along the lines of Cordova Hills is in our future, however, we'll fail to meet our climate change goals. This type of development is part of what led to our current land use patterns, where too many Californians must depend on their cars almost any time they leave home.

Sacramento County is making a mistake by approving the Cordova Hills subdivision — it's a “body blow for smart planning,” as the Sacramento Bee’s editorial page puts it. We hope the backlash to the decision will cause the Board of Supervisors to reconsider its position.