Sacramento Region SCS Builds on Tradition of Blueprint Planning

 

For many jurisdictions that are part of California’s “Big Four” metropolitan planning organizations, Senate Bill 375 has ushered in new, unprecedented degrees of collaboration. But whereas SB 375 makes a regional planning revolution for many, for the jurisdictions of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the SCS is business as usual. 

Having pursued so-called “Blueprint” planning since 2004, and having built its 2008 Metro Transportation Plan (MTP) around it, the Sacramento region’s efforts inspired some of the tenets of SB 375 in the first place. The SACOG SCS, released in November and scheduled to be voted on next month, is no novel concept but rather more of a revision of existing plans. It has been met with broad support in part because the heavy lifting was done years ago. 

“It's been a nudge. It’s not like it was a revolution,” said McKeever. “The revolution happened when the Blueprint was adopted.” 

Thus far, developers, environmental groups, and member cities alike have hailed the plan. In fact, the enthusiastic support is a far cry from the response to San Diego’s SCS, which was hit with a lawsuit at the same time that SACOG released its draft. That lawsuit claims that the SCS favors highway too heavily and increases sprawl in the region. In addition to the environmental groups that filed the suit, Attorney General Kamala Harris recently joined the suit. 

No such complaints have been lodged in the Sacramento area and scarce opposition has arisen. 

The SCS responds in part to estimates for population growth that have recently been revised downward. Those residents who do move to, and are born into, the region will, as is typical in smart-growth planning scenarios, have a greater selection of high-density housing stock. 

The SCS assumes that the region, currently at 2.2 million residents, will grow by roughly 871,000 residents— 400,000 fewer than the 2008 MTP assumes – translating to 361,000 new jobs and just over 300,000 new housing units. The SCS calls for all of this new growth to consume only 56,000 acres of greenfield land. 

As SACOG executive director Mike McKeever noted, that amounts to a 40% population increase while increasing the region’s development footprint only 7%. 

As a result of this more compact development pattern, the region is expected to meet its goals for greenhouse gas emissions. SACOG’s models estimate that vehicle miles traveled per household will decrease by 6%. Traffic congestion is expected to decrease 7% by 2035, as compared to an increase of 22% projected by the 2008 MTP. 

These reductions in traffic stem largely from new investments in a range of transportation modes. The MTP/SCS calls for the expansion of metro Sacramento’s two light rail lines, the introduction of a streetcar in West Sacramento, and a host of bus improvements, including bus rapid transit. It also calls for spending on new arterial roads. 

Notably, the plan also calls for $2.8 billion in investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, which is projected to spur a 32% increase in the hose of those modes.

“We’ve really turned a corner on what’s happened in the Sacramento area since about 1980,” said Matt Baker, habitat director at the Environmental Council of Sacramento. “We feel it can be improved by developing an implementation plan for a comprehensive network for active transportation – bike and ped – in alignment with the transportation network.”

McKeever said that the SCS/MTP also projects an increase in transit ridership and, notably, a farebox recovery rate that will increase from today’s 24% to 38% in 2035. 

“That may seem like a boring number to people, but that’s a huge difference in terms of having an economically viable transit region in this region,” said McKeever. He said that, at those rates, the region would have an extra $1 billion to re-invest in transit. 

Single-family large-lot housing is planned to grow by 29% while single family small-lot and attached housing is planed to grow by 71 percent. All of this is projected to result in a far smaller growth footprint than that created during the previous few decades, when subdivisions of single-family detached homes spread across former farmland. 

The SCS approaches land use and new development from three different perspectives: that of community type, Blueprint principles, and Transit Priority Areas. The region’s five community types range include (1) centers and corridors (i.e. major employment centers); (2) established communities; (3) developing communities; (4) rural residential communities; and (5) lands not intended to be developed. The plan attempts to focus growth on the more dense, established places. 

As well, it overlays the concept of Transit Priority Areas (TPA), which are defined as areas within one-half mile of transit service with at least 15-minute headways. This would include the region’s light rail lines and certain high-capacity bus lines, both existing and planned. The SCS intends for developments in TPA’s to take advantage of SB 375’s relaxation of CEQA requirements, thus promoting infill development that will reduce per capita vehicle miles travelled. 

These predictions come from what McKeever describes as an innovative “activity-based” modeling methodology. The land-use modeling uses I-Places, an industry standard. He described the transportation model as unusually precise—measuring trips on a per-parcel basis—and accounting for the “tours” that drivers take during the day as they travel not only between home and work but also to intermediary locations along the way. 

McKeever said that this sort of modeling did not necessarily bias the projections towards more trips or fewer trips; rather, he said, it is simply more precise than methods used in the past. 

“It’s not that there’s a bias in the model one way or another,” said McKeever. “It’s more that it’s just a more precise way to estimate travel behavior.”

McKeever offered the example of a transit oriented development: “(Without) a parcel-based ability in both your land use and transportation models…wou lose your ability to figure out whether putting that TOD in that particular place would have any meaningful impact on travel behavior or not.” 

The RTP also calls for the expanded transit service to reach 150,000 residents and 240,000 employees who do not currently have easy access to transit. 

Between 1988 and 2005, SACOG estimates that the region grew by approximately 657,000 people while consuming 200,00 acres of farmland. The new MTP/SCS calls for 800,000 new residents to consume only 36,000 more acres of farmland.

Unlike those in other the three regions that are implementing SCS’s, the SACOG SCS takes pains to preserve farmland, as agriculture is to the Sacramento region what tech is to San Francisco and entertainment is to Los Angeles. 

“It's a particularly big deal to us because our farm economy is a big deal in this region,” said McKeever. “Farm products is one of the few things that we actually make in this region and export to the world. We get a lot of extra multiplier value and we want to save as much of that dirt as we can.”

This avoidance of developing on farmland is complemented by the region’s Urban-Rural Connection Strategy. This program seeks to analyze the relationship between agricultural areas and urban centers with respect to issues such as local food supplies, transportation routes, infrastructure demands, and irrigation. 

Despite this sensitivity to the agriculture industry, some in the region’s rural counties are wary of the SCS’s prescription for compact growth. 

“A lot of elected officials don’t like to tie themselves to a plan that might limit their ability to do business with developers,” said Yuba County Supervisor Mary Jane Griego, a member of the SACOG board. “I think the hangup might have been that this plan felt to some like it was stepping on their land.”

Griego said, however, that public officials in Yuba County are content with the plan. 

“We’re a small agricultural county and wanted to make sure that growth is in appropriate areas,” said Greigo. “We wanted to preserve our farmland and make sure that we kept that business for a long time.”

Griego added that many pro-development officials in rural counties may be dreaming that the boom of the early 2000s will rise again. Greigo called such predictions “unrealistic.” 

 “Content” generally describes the mood of the environmental community. However, the Environmental Council of Sacramento has raised a few concerns about the amount of ecologically sensitive areas that could be impacted by the SCS upon build-out. Baker noted that the Rural-Urban Connections program includes meticulous research about the impact of urbanization on the agricultural community but that the SCS’s analysis of ecological impacts is not as deep or conclusive. 

As well, they believe that the SCS allows land to be wasted on housing types whose time has come and gone. 

“We do applaud reduced growth footprint, but we also feel that there is too large of a percentage of large-lot, single family residences in the plan,” said Baker. “The plan’s proportion of large-lot single family housing does not reflect the oversupply that we already have in the area.” 

One crucial constituency that embraces the SCS is that of SACOG’s member cities. There seems to be an unusually strong symbiotic relationship between cities and the MPO in that cities in the region have been updating their general plan with the Blueprint in mind. To the extent that the SCS reflects the Blueprint, it is very much in line with what cities are already anticipating. 

“From the city’s perspective, the planning work that we’ve done to-date – we updated our general plan three years ago – and we did that consistent with the smart growth and blueprint principles that were already laid out,” said Erik de Kok, senior planner with the City of Sacramento. 

“You can’t just paste those general plans together and say, ‘this is our regional plan,’” said McKeever. “That being said, our land use pattern is largely consistent with the general plans.” 

This sort of synergy is a reason why Eliot Rose, deputy director of UC-Berkeley’s Center for Resource Efficient Communities, considers the SACOG SCS a standout among its peers. Rose praised the plan for clearly describing and explaining the changes in land use that it recommends, for using demographic data in a sophisticated way, and in reflecting cooperation between the regional body and its member jurisdictions. 

“SACOG distinguishes really clearly between the roles that local land use plans, demographic, and economic trends that sometimes often are best analyzed at the regional level play in shaping land use change,” said Rose. 

In doing so, Rose said that SACOG may have avoided some of the problems that are plaguing SANDAG. 

“They’ve taken a lot of steps to demystify this process and be transparent about it rather than rolling a lot of different local decisions and independent policies and programs together and presenting them as part of a package that may not actually be that cohesive behind the scenes,” said Rose. 

Rose might get some disagreement from supporters of the Tea Party movement. Over the past year, Tea Party supporters have voiced strong opinions in public meetings concerning SCS’s throughout the state. Many of them object to centralized government planning and contend that SCS’s are designed to limit residents’ freedom of choice and to socially engineer a less free lifestyle. 

McKeever said that Tea Party opposition has not been as strong in the SACOG region as it has been in the Bay Area, but he noted that the region’s rural counties are strongholds of Tea Party sentiment. 

In light of the Tea Party’s outspokenness, McKeever said that SACOG has been prepared with responses to their concerns. 

“We try to explain that much of what we try to do is in some ways consistent with what they’re saying,” said McKeever. “They talk about freedom and variety and options and choice and those are all things that are central to what we’re trying to do.”

Contacts & Resources: 

SACOG SCS/MTP (PDF) 

Matt Baker, Habitat Director, Environmental Council of Sacramento, 916.444.0022

Erik de Kok, Sr. Planner, City of Sacramento, 916.264.5011

Mary Jane Griego, Yuba County Supervisor, .530.749.7510

Mike McKeever, Executive Director, SACOG, 916.321.9000

Eliot Rose, Deputy Director, UC-Berkeley Center for Resource Efficient Communities, 510.642.0779