One of the largest housing developments ever proposed for the Central Valley received approval from the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in July. After about a decade of planning, environmental reviews and public hearings, supervisors backed the 2,600-acre, 10,000-unit Sunridge Specific Plan — a detailed subset of the 6,000-acre Sunrise-Douglas Community Plan, which supervisors also approved in July.
The development is planned for pastureland south of Highway 50 in the eastern part of Sacramento County. The entire community plan area is within the borders of the proposed City of Rancho Cordova; voters will decide on incorporation in November.
"We are basically bringing houses to where the jobs already are," said John Hodgson, a project manager for the 18 landowners in the specific plan area.
The planning and environmental review process took many years not because of strong public opposition, but because pollution from the nearby Aerojet factory prevented developers from using on-site wells for water.
"I think the greatest difficulty has been over the water supply issue," said Dave Pevney, Sacramento County senior planner. "Water will come from several miles away to get away from the Aerojet plume. There can be no on-site wells."
Airplane noise from Mather Field, a closed Air Force base about three miles from the specific plan area that now serves as a cargo airport, was also a complicating factor. The area is also dotted with vernal pools, which provide habitat for endangered fairy shrimp and some rare plant species.
Developers resolved the airport noise issue by agreeing to place a noise easement on land most affected by the airport. The wetlands could be a bigger obstacle. The largest landowner in the Sunridge Specific Plan area, Angelo Tsakopoulos's AKT Development, has the necessary federal permits for its 1,200 acres. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has halted further permitting until Sacramento County completes a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for a broad area that includes the community plan area.
House the workers
In recent years, the Highway 50 corridor — roughly 15 miles from the California State University, Sacramento campus to Folsom —has experienced rapid economic growth. New business parks and office buildings have transformed the corridor into the second largest job center in the region, behind only downtown Sacramento.
In 1993, supervisors placed the Sunrise-Douglas area within the urban services boundary. In 1994, a citizens advisory committee recommended some guiding principles for the Sunrise-Douglas Community Plan and urged preparation of a specific plan for the entire 6,042 acres within the community plan area. The county abandoned the plan for one huge specific plan in 1995, mostly because the private landowners funding the planning effort were not willing to pay for the whole thing. So the county moved forward on a more general community plan for the whole area, and on a specific plan for the 2,632 acre Sunridge area, which property owners were willing to fund.
The Sunrise-Douglas Community Plan is not a land use plan, Pevney explained. Instead it provides planning policies and outlines holding capacities. Ultimately, the 6,000-acre community plan area could accommodate 22,000 housing units. The Sunridge Specific Plan constitutes 43% of the community plan area.
Planning and environmental review for Sunridge ground forward slowly. Hodgson half-joked that he was brought in for the final 18 months of the process — in 1996. "We lost 2 1/2 years on water, alone," he lamented.
The lost time was the result of the state Department of Health Services blocking plans for on-site wells because the wells would too close to groundwater contamination at Aerojet, a major Defense Department contractor. Eventually, a well site was chosen about four miles south of Sunridge. Ultimately, a diversion Sacramento River water by the Sacramento County Water Agency and the East Bay Municipal Utility District will serve the community plan area (see CP&DR Environment Watch, December 2001).
In fall of 2001, supervisors began public hearings on the community plan, the specific plan, related general plan and zoning amendments, an infrastructure financing plan and an EIR. Supervisors continued to review the project every week or two until voting final approval in July.
The project received surprisingly little opposition from Sacramento's environmental community. A group called Vineyard Area Residents for Responsible Growth has threatened to sue the county over the EIR. The group's primary concern is that the development will harm existing groundwater wells. Some affordable housing advocates questioned the number of low-income units in the Sunridge plan area. Also, developers have had to work out an estimated $3 million agreement with a rendering company to retrofit a nearby plant with odor-control equipment.
"We didn't have a lot of neighborhood opposition because there are almost no neighbors at all," Hodgson said.
There is traffic, however, especially on the area's arterial roads and on Highway 50. The plans do not account for transit service, other than shuttles to a light rail station several miles away and possibly to large Rancho Cordova employment centers. The project does not have the housing density to justify light rail. Plus, light rail would have to pass through several miles of low-density commercial and industrial development to reach the specific plan area, Pevney said.
Instead, the infrastructure plan focuses on roads and the timing for improvements. The county is requiring Sunridge developers to put in an estimated $50 million to $60 million worth of road improvements.
"Over time, there will be a lot of road construction out there, although people recognize that traffic is already a major problem and will always be a major problem," Pevney said.
While the density may not be adequate for rail service, it is greater than any other large specific plan in the region, Hodgson said. The residential areas will have densities ranging from 4 to 20 units per acre, with an average of 5.5 units an acre. "Any time we do a project, we get pushed by some supervisors for more density, and by some of the supervisors for less density," Hodgson said.
The specific plan designates 120 acres for commercial mixed uses, 54 acres for community commercial, 100 acres for parks, 44 acres for schools and 34 acres for stormwater detention. An additional 482 acres is set aside as a wetlands preserve.
Making a federal case
The wetlands preserve is a condition of AKT Development building on the remainder of its 1,200 acres. A previous property owner, Sares-Regis, accepted the condition in arranging Clean Water Act permits. That puts AKT well ahead of other property owners, who are going to have to deal with frustrated federal regulators.
"Because of the growth of that area, we envision a more comprehensive planning effort," said Karen Schwinn, EPA Region IX Water Division deputy director.
Since the 1980s, the EPA has provided about $750,000 toward preparation of an HCP that covers 300,000 acres, Schwinn said. The county has prepared some maps and species risk studies, but it has not drafted a habitat plan.
In comments provided to the county in May, the EPA said, "If the Board of Supervisors approves the Community and Specific Plans before they approve the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan, the County risks undercutting the HCP and devaluing its potential effectiveness for integrating permitting and guiding development and conservation across the region." Without an HCP in place, EPA officials note, federal and state agencies are going to have final say over particular development projects.
Interestingly, the Sunridge developer's point man, Hodgson, has chaired the HCP Steering Committee for five years. He conceded that an HCP could help the project.
"But they [HCPs] take so long to do and they get litigated so much," Hodgson said. "We're creating many of the major parts of what the HCP would create anyway."
Still, developers other than AKT will need Clean Water Act permits. Whatever the EPA decides could require the county to reopen the specific plan, Pevney warned.
Developers hope to begin work on infrastructure in spring 2003, with the first home construction to follow later in the year. Those homes would be built within the City of Rancho Cordova if voters approve incorporation in November. Leaders of the incorporation effort have backed the county's community and specific plans, saying the area's growing employment centers need the housing.
John Hodgson, The Hodgson Company, (916) 383-6091
Dave Pevney, Sacramento County Planning Department, (916) 874-6141.
Karen Schwinn, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, (415) 972-3472.