I recently had one of those "aha!" moments that gives us special insight into the deeper nature of things. The magic moment came during a recent exercise in home buying, when I was fluttering back and forth between two different houses on two different streets. One house stood on a street with sidewalks and gutters, while the second house stood on an equally nice street, or nearly so, but without sidewalks. I assumed that the house with sidewalks would cost more because of the added amenity. My real estate agent set me straight, however: Homes without sidewalks usually command higher prices because they look more suburban, less accessible, and possibly just a teensy bit more exclusive. In other words, the less usable the street appears — that is, the less convenient for outsiders — the more attractive it is to homebuyers. That trivial insight came back to me when I examined the framework plan for Southport, a 7,000-acre planning area in the City of West Sacramento. The plan is sedulously suburban, and radically grid-free: There is nary a straight street in sight, nor one street that is parallel to another. Most of the residential streets are cul-de-sacs. The housing, according to the current fashion, is arranged in separate "villages," each with its own neighborhood shopping center. Although the plan is the work of an experienced site planner — Steven Kellenberg, who prepared the first version of this plan in 1995 when he worked for PBR Consultants of Irvine, and who is currently with the Orange County office of EDAW Inc. — the plan at first glance looks like a jumble: some farmland here, some industrial there, clumps of housing here and there. Much of the map is taken up with a no-man's-land called "estate housing" or "rural residential." This plan gave me pause, and then some doubts about my pause: First off, why would anybody choose to develop a plan that stressed the separation of communities, rather than connectedness? Is the planner subscribing to a largely discredited approach to urban planning? Or has my way of looking at plans grown too rigid, insisting on the verities of the New Urbanism where they are not warranted? The fact is, West Sacramento wants to build a high-quality, upscale suburban community. They city has selected both the designer and the community prototypes it thinks most appropriate. I guess it is easy for some people to be condescending and view West Sacramento as a working-class city that wants to turn itself into a fancy suburb. To tell the truth, the city has never been one of those laid-back, "honey-while-you're-up-could-you-fix-me-another-mimosa" kind of places. Southport itself is an agriculture area immediately south of the Port of Sacramento. The area is almost an island, separated from the rest of the region by the Deep Water Ship Channel on the west, the Barge Canal on the north and the Sacramento River on the east. Much of Southport is a greenfield (that is, a previously undeveloped site) and a portion will remain farmland. In short, Southport is the empty canvas on which West Sacramento can paint a new picture of itself as an attractive, middle-class Edge City of the Information Age. The city does not want urban housing, thank you very much. What it wants, dammit, is romance. West Sacramento wants you to buy a house where you can look out at a field of strawberries from your front yard, and see big, squire-like houses on two-acre lots from the back. It wants a sense of order that comes from regular rows of crops, and the hint of country living that come from the winding roads that run along expansive estates. In short, it wants Orange County. In defense of West Sacramento, the aforementioned is a popular style of life in California and elsewhere, and the urban village formula has proven to be a bankable one. In going this route, the city passed over well-established New Urbanist masters, including Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek, and Peter Calthorpe, to choose an Irvine-based firm with plentiful experience in designing master-planned communities in the Big Orange. The designers propose four separate "villages" of differing character and density. This scheme fulfills the city's policy, articulated in the 1992 housing element, to "attract a greater diversity of housing types." The positive aspect of this approach is that the villages will provide an intimate, pedestrian-oriented way of life. But pedestrian-oriented or not, the villages appear placed in arbitrary locations. They float inside the site plan of Southport like the organelles of a cellular organism. But what is so bad about irregularity? Am I merely having a knee-jerk reaction because the site is not a Calthorpe-style grid? Maybe. And why, indeed, should all site plans be forced to submit to the tyranny of the grid? Both natural land forms and man-made conditions should dictate where streets and other facilities may be located. That said, a number of decisions in Southport appears less motivated by existing conditions, and more by a desire to create intriguing overlaps between farmland, estate housing and medium-density housing. That may be picturesque. Problems may occur, however, when Southport becomes more densely populated, and the very limited circulation options become inconvenient, as they have in Orange County. Additionally, I am bothered to see that several of the greenbelts mentioned in the plan are actually for large-lot residential, which is exactly the unconstrained type of development that greenbelts were invented to avoid. I am sympathetic with the goal of creating nice housing and clean industry in Southport. I am unconvinced, however, that Orange County is the right model for the long term. The feeling of exclusivity and living within a separate realm seems attractive. In a few years, however, when density arrives, the same planning ideas that gave you rural charm can give you congestion and inflexibility. But that's an "aha!" that West Sacramento will have to experience for itself.