One Yuba County developer whose subdivision project was defeated in a referendum should buy lunch for everyone who voted against him.

The voters killed the 5,100-unit Yuba Highlands project in early 2008, just as the housing market decline was picking up steam. Developer Gary Gallelli actually ended up campaigning against his own project, saying he wanted to pursue a scaled-down project. But the overwhelming, nearly 4-to-1 vote against Yuba Highlands, combined with the real estate crash, effectively ended any chance of developing the 2,900-acre site in the Yuba County foothills east of Marysville for the foreseeable future. Essentially, the voters ended for good what could have been a long, painful and expensive growth fight.

Earlier this month, the developer made the best of the situation by selling a 700-acre conservation easement on a portion of the land to the Trust for Public Land (TPL). They also signed an agreement in which Gallelli agreed to place the rest of the property under a conservation easement as the TPL lines up more funding.

This is the best possible outcome. Yuba Highlands was just the sort of project that received approval during the previous decade's roaring period, when housing development was king and real estate was going to make local governments rich. Cities and counties all over the Central Valley and on the fringes of L.A. approved similar exurban housing tracts. As they deal with the fallout of half-built infrastructure and abandoned developments, many of those cities and counties are now regretting their decisions. 

The location of the proposed Yuba Highlands project was a disaster: an infrastructure-free wedge of land between Spenceville State Wildlife Area and Beale Air Force Base, and a nearly 20 minute drive from any urban services and employment sites. The Yuba County Board of Supervisors approved the project in July 2007 on a 3-2 vote, with even two of the supporters demonstrating reluctance. That vote was followed by a lawsuit over the environmental impact report, referendum petitions, and, soon enough, the death of the project at voters' hands. There was little evidence that Gallelli ever worked seriously on a smaller development plan.  

Trust for Public Land used $400,000 from the Department of Defense to create buffers around military bases and $350,000 in environmental mitigation money from Caltrans to purchase the 700-acre conservation easement. It permits continued grazing and other agricultural uses, and prohibits urban development. I have no doubt TPL, in time, will lock up the remaining acreage.

In the meantime, Gallelli and Yuba County's civic leadership now have plenty of opportunity to consider more appropriate places for growth. Places that have infrastructure. Places that aren't beyond the boondocks. Places that aren't so environmentally sensitive. Places like ... Marysville?

– Paul Shigley