A proposal to develop what amounts to a 5,000 housing-unit new town in the foothills of Yuba County is advancing, but the project still faces numerous hurdles.
In addition to concerns raised by environmentalists and slow-growth advocates, numerous government agencies have questioned both the project's environmental impact report (EIR) and the wisdom of building a new town in a very rural location nearly 15 miles from the nearest services.
Proponents of Yuba Highlands counter that the project is consistent with a 1993 community plan for the area and provides a preferable alternative to additional development of Yuba County's farmland and floodplains.
In late May, the Yuba County Board of Supervisors began considering whether to put the project on the ballot. But only one week earlier, the supervisors voted 3-2 to deny an appeal of the Planning Commission's certification of the Yuba Highlands EIR. But, because local practice requires a four-fifths vote for statements of overriding consideration — which the EIR contains because of the project's significant, unavoidable impacts — the effect of the 3-2 vote was unclear, and supervisors are scheduled to make a final decision on the EIR in June. Assuming the EIR is in place, the board could also consider an area plan, a development agreement and a general plan amendment in June.
The county's approval of the EIR and project would almost guarantee lawsuits. At least six government agencies — the attorney general's office, Caltrans, the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) and the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District — have called the EIR inadequate, and some surrounding local governments have expressed concern about the project's traffic, air quality and housing impacts.
"They really just bulled their way through and didn't address any of the city's concerns," Marysville Community Development Director Gary Price said. "We think the EIR is completely inadequate."
"You are not seeing the complete picture," Jeff Finn, a DFG biologist, told the Board of Supervisors during a standing-room-only public hearing for the EIR appeal. Supervisors Hal Stocker and Mary Jane Griego agreed, saying the traffic, water, wildlife and air quality analyses were incomplete.
"If this is a good EIR, I'd hate to see a bad one," said Stocker, an outspoken project opponent whom the developer has tried to disqualify from considering the project. "It has more holes than Swiss cheese."
Complicating things further is the project's location adjacent to Beale Air Force Base. Although the Air Force is officially neutral on Yuba Highlands, project detractors say the development would unnecessarily encroach on the 22,000-acre base, potentially threatening its future viability.
Yuba County has long been one of the poorest in California. Although it has increasingly become a home to Sacramento-area commuters, the county's unemployment rate remains high: It was 9.5% in April, roughly double the state rate, according to the state Employment Development Department. Per capita income is approximately one-third less than the state average. Partly because of the weak local economy, the county has warmly greeted numerous development proposals. Depending on who is counting, at least 15,000 housing units in a county of only 70,000 people are somewhere in the pipeline — and that estimate doesn't include thousands of houses proposed for the tiny City of Wheatland.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Yuba County designated new growth areas. One of them is River Highlands, a 21,800-acre area approximately 20 miles east of Marysville, between Beale and the Nevada County line. The River Highlands community plan, adopted as part of the general plan, designated much of the area for five-acre parcels. A core area, however, was designated for two units per acre. In 2001, developer Gary Gallelli proposed the Yuba Highlands project for the core area.
The review process ground on for years until October 2006, when the county released a final EIR. At that point, what had been a proposed specific plan became an area plan because the proposal lacks aspects required of a specific plan, such as detailed infrastructure and financing plans. Early this year, a divided Yuba County Planning Commission certified the EIR and recommended project approval.
The project proposes 5,100 dwelling units on about 1,900 acres of the 2,900-acre site. Also proposed are 85 acres of commercial development in three locations, a business park, a golf course, an 81-acre park and three schools.
Proponents say the site is ideal for growth because it is not in a floodplain (unlike many new Yuba County developments), nor is the mostly treeless grassland valuable farmland or high-quality oak woodlands. But opponents contend the site is simply too remote, and that its proximity to Beale and the 11,000-acre Spenceville State Wildlife Area is a drawback. The project site has no municipal services, infrastructure, schools, shopping or anything else, Supervisor Griego pointed out.
"Just because you're not in a flood zone doesn't mean you are in a proper place to develop," Griego said. "We have enough development to supply us for many, many years to come. We have no shortage of houses."
Yuba Highlands would be a 15- to 20-mile drive on two-lane country roads to the nearest urban areas, and, according to the EIR, would generate 24,000 automobile trips a day on only one county road to Marysville. Yet Caltrans, SACOG and the City of Marysville question even that high number, as they contend the EIR's traffic analysis is inadequate because it is based on outdated statistics. They also argue that the EIR improperly defers mitigations.
Related to the traffic concerns are air quality — and global warming — worries. The attorney general's office urged county supervisors to reject the EIR because it "completely ignores impacts from greenhouse gas emissions." Yuba County received the attorney general's protest letter only a few weeks after the attorney general sued San Bernardino County for not addressing global warming in a general plan update.

Meanwhile, downwind Nevada County is concerned about air pollution from the development. Western Nevada County is a "non-attainment" area because of ozone pollution. Emissions blowing in from Yuba Highlands would more than offset every measure that the Northern Sierra Air Quality Management District has planned for western Nevada County to reach attainment, the district's Sam Longmire said.
Richard Thomas, a longtime Sierra Club organizer and chair of Friends of Spenceville, said the development would send 7,000 cars a day on a road through the wildlife area, threatening its integrity. Department of Fish and Game representatives have raised similar concerns and contend the EIR does not fully address the impacts of Yuba Highlands and other new developments on the wildlife area. The DFG's Finn said the EIR contains conclusions without scientific support.
And then there is Beale. For decades, the Air Force base has been the cornerstone of Yuba and Sutter counties' economy. The base has about 5,000 employees, making it by far the largest employer in the area. Recognizing that land use conflicts have been a factor in some California base closures, the Governor's Office of Planning and Research is managing a Beale joint land use study with the Department of Defense and other interested parties. So far, the process has identified a number of existing and potential conflicts, but a draft plan, originally due in March, has not been released.
Two years ago, Beale's commander expressed concerns about Yuba Highlands. Since then, the commander has changed and the Air Force has gone publicly mute. During recent public hearings, project opponents and proponents have argued over whose position better supports Beale. Supervisor Griego said that a housing development adjacent to the base conflicts with Beale's operations and sends the wrong message to the Pentagon. William Kopper, an attorney for labor unions that appealed the EIR, said the environmental document uses the wrong noise standard. Instead of measuring single-instance noise from Air Force planes, the EIR relies on a 24-hour standard that is skewed by long periods of quiet to suggest that homeowners in the proposed development would not be bothered by military aircraft, he said.

But Supervisor Dan Logue said that Beale leaders told him they want to see Yuba Highlands go forward because it would provide housing for Beale personnel, an argument also advanced by some community liaisons to Beale and by retired Air Force personnel.
Water is also an issue. Developer Gallelli plans to rely on groundwater — supplied by the Yuba County Water Agency and distributed via a community services district — and the EIR says groundwater is plentiful. However, the Regional Water Quality Control Board contends that the groundwater source is "underflow" of the Yuba River and, therefore, is water under the state's jurisdiction. If that is the case, the state would conduct a lengthy process to determine who is entitled to use the water.
Supervisors Logue and Don Schrader both said they were comfortable with the EIR's water analysis because the project will stop if the developer can't get access to water. Project opponents, however, note that courts have been reluctant to accept that line of reasoning.
But project backers say the time has arrived to stop studying and move ahead. Richard Floch, a planning consultant for the developer, said Yuba County officials adopted the original River Highlands community plan because they could see growth coming. The Yuba Highlands plan is simply the next step, he said. Contracts are in place to provide water and the Wheatland-based school district is prepared to provide new schools. Planners have clustered housing away from areas that get the most noise from Beale, and they have proposed a mix of commercial and industrial uses to reduce vehicle travel — all of which improves on the original plan, he said. If the county rejects Yuba Highlands, Floch asked, then what is the value of long-term planning?
To which Logue says: "I wish we could go back to 1993 because I guarantee I wouldn't have supported this project."
Yet Logue appears to be a project supporter now, as does Schrader, albeit a wary one.
"Why," asked Schrader, "do I have the feeling this is going to end up before a person with a black robe?"

Yuba Highlands area plan: http://www.co.yuba.ca.us/Departments/Community%20Development/Planning/Specific%20Plans/Yuba%20Highlands%20Area%20Plan/default.aspx
River Highlands community plan: http://www.co.yuba.ca.us/Departments/Community%20Development/Planning/Specific%20Plans/River%20Highlands%20Community%20Plan/default.aspx
Beale joint land use study: http://www.cajlus.com/beale_home.htm
Friends of Spenceville: http://www.spenceville.org/