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Smart Growth Realism In Sacramento

Mar 3, 2008

If you live in the Bay Area, where everybody thinks they are the coolest people on earth, or in Los Angeles, the world's biggest experiment in infill development, it's hard to swallow the idea that Sacramento may be ahead of us on planning. But it's true.

Unlikely as it may the seem, Sacramento Area Council of Governments – the six-county regional planning agency commonly known as SACOG – has actually made the idea of higher-density projects conforming to the regional plan seem cool, even to suburban politicians.

SACOG approved the "Sacramento Region Blueprint" a little more than three years ago. Like a lot of other "regional visions" in the last few years – most notably Envision Utah the Blueprint lays out a more compact version of the region's future growth than would otherwise be the case.

Such regional visions aren't hard to create, but they're almost impossible to implement. That's because the local elected officials have to go back home and actually make decisions to increase densities and move development around in a way that the locals – constituents and developers – might not like.

Under the leadership of Executive Director Mike McKeever, a veteran of the growth wars in Portland, SACOG has managed to maintain the pressure. One trick has been to get local electeds excited about the cachet of a "Blueprint project" that earns SACOG's seal of approval.

But another trick – maybe the most powerful one – is simply to be realistic. McKeever has been smart enough to recognize – and repeatedly articulate – that you can't accommodate all future growth with mid-rise mixed-use buildings in Midtown Sacramento. Sometimes to the consternation of local environmentalists, McKeever has strongly supported certain greenfield developments – especially those in what McKeever calls "infill greenfield" locations.

Exhibit A here is the Placer Vineyards project near Roseville. Environmentalists don't like the idea of more greenfield projects chewing up raw land in Placer County, north of Sacramento. In fact, it's the subject of a lot of lawsuits. But in McKeever's view – and according to the Blueprint – good development there is far preferable to lower-density development both there and farther out in Sutter, Yuba, and northern Placer counties.

Placer Vineyards may or may not turn out to be a good project. There are two possibilities floating around, one more smart growth than the other, and it's not clear which one will be passed. If the lousy one passes in the end, it's pretty much just more of Roseville. But I guess it's better to have more of Roseville in Roseville, than in Wheatland or Nicolaus.

A good regional plan, good public relations – and a little bit of realism. Maybe that's how land use patterns in California get changed for the better.

- Bill Fulton


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