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    What had been open land in Elk Grove near Laguna Boulevard and Harbour Point Drive is now wall-to-wall homes in this composite photograph composed of three images of the area that were digitally stitched together. The new development has increased both pollution and commute times.

  • CHRIS CREWELL / Bee file, 1998

    Just a handful of houses had been constructed in 1998 in this area of Elk Grove between Laguna and Elk Grove boulevards, and east of Interstate 5. The scene changed dramatically over the next decade, as the south Sacramento County city's population nearly doubled, growing by 72,000 residents.

Sprawl's spread speeds up

Published: Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 - 10:00 pm | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011 - 9:31 am

Goodbye, farm. Hello, subdivision.

Despite talk of smart growth, urban Sacramento didn't check its sprawl in the past 10 years, but ballooned instead, spreading out at a faster pace than in decades past, according to a Bee analysis of new census figures.

From 2000 to 2010, builders converted about 90 square miles of rural land in the region to urban development, almost the equivalent of urbanizing a new area the size of the city of Sacramento.

Nearly all of that expansion happened in the space of seven years: the housing boom. Construction and new development since then have slowed to a trickle, offering grazing cows a breather.

Plans for new growth, though, have continued, with counties and cities across the region talking about where to put the wave of homes expected to materialize when the economy improves.

"There is a huge debate about opening up more land," said Rob Wassmer, a professor of public policy at California State University, Sacramento.

Similar debates about urban sprawl in Sacramento have persisted for decades, as those advocating for slow growth warn about traffic and pollution and those looking for expansion predict more jobs and commercial opportunities.

Both sides will find something to like and dislike when studying the last decade.

The region's growing footprint shifted billions in household wealth – and hundreds of jobs – from Sacramento County to suburban counties. But it also brought the region thousands of well-off residents – and the jobs they supported – from other parts of the state, particularly the Bay Area.

Expansion contributed to traffic spikes and air pollution. Those spikes, though, have abated in recent years as the region's 12 percent unemployment rate kept many would-be commuters at home.

Growth immediately created tens of thousands of construction jobs during the housing boom. But those jobs disappeared just as quickly, and many of the new homes and offices sit vacant, blighting instead of bolstering suburbs.

All told, more than half the population growth in the region during the last decade occurred in freshly converted farmland. The region's urban footprint – areas with at least 1,000 people per square mile – nearly doubled from 1980 to 2010. Only 1 percent of last decade's population growth took place in the urban core that existed before 1980.

Regional planners expect the next census report in 2020 to be different. They have spent years hammering out a blueprint that would encourage high-density growth in already-established areas. Local governments across the region back the plan.

"We project a land-use pattern that's going to flip the old pattern on its head," said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. "Seventy percent of new housing will be attached or small lot."

Others are dubious. Policy often heads in the same direction as money, they note, and lots of money – for cities, developers and political campaigns – is contingent on growing the region's footprint.

"It's full speed ahead, it seems to me," said Rob Burness, a former Sacramento County planner and a member of the executive committee of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, summing up government planning meetings he's attended.

Growth slows commutes

The debate matters to anyone who has somewhere to drive, particularly if they are in a hurry.

In Elk Grove, for instance, residents spend, on average, about 60 minutes a day commuting, usually up Interstate 5 or U.S. 99 into Sacramento. That's about 10 percent longer, on average, than they spent in 2000, census figures show.

"We look at the traffic and the pollution that goes with it – it affects the quality of life," said Shirley Peters, a retired teacher who has lived in Elk Grove since 1971.

Elk Grove was a hot spot of development on open land during the last decade. Its population grew by 72,000, or 88 percent; the town's urban footprint grew by about 7 square miles.

On the other side of the county, new construction in North Natomas added 11 square miles of development – and several thousand frustrated drivers to the region. Even though their homes sit only five to seven miles from downtown, North Natomas commuters still spend, on average, about 50 minutes a day traveling to and from work, census figures show.

That disturbs Barbara Graichen, who has lived in North Natomas for more than 30 years. A community leader, she pushed the city to follow a decades-old plan for developing the area in a way that minimized traffic. To some extent, they complied – building a network of bike lanes and paths, for instance – but in other areas, they failed.

The most obvious sign of that failure, at least when it comes to traffic, is at the cluster of shopping centers near Truxel Road and I-80, Graichen said.

Instead of concentrating the shops in one spot, big box stores are spread over a mile. To walk from one store to the other requires crossing busy roads, including a 12-lane stretch of Truxel.

Instead, Natomas residents typically drive to buy clothes at Ross, then get back into their cars and idle a few hundred yards to the Walmart, then get back in their cars and drive another 800 yards across Truxel to Barnes & Noble.

Each new stop requires finding a new parking spot, so shoppers get in each other's way. The whole journey covers less than a mile, but it can suck up a Saturday afternoon.

"It just drives me crazy," said Graichen, who is a municipal planner herself. "My husband will just say, 'Don't think about it.' "

Flight leads to blight

When new construction entices families to move from one area to another, it affects more than just traffic, particularly if those residents take a lot of money with them.

From 2000 to 2006, about 57,000 households relocated from Sacramento County to Placer and El Dorado counties, far more than moved in the other direction, Internal Revenue Service data show.

With them came about $3.1 billion in annual household income.

"That causes blight" in areas those residents left behind, said Wassmer, the Sacramento State professor. "People who went to these areas are more affluent and more educated. When they leave, that hurts."

Schools were especially impacted, Wassmer said. Dozens closed, particularly in the San Juan Unified School District nearest to El Dorado and Placer counties.

On the other hand, many of the residents who left Sacramento for the suburbs might have left the region altogether, taking income and jobs with them, if not given a nearby place to relocate.

Likewise, tens of thousands of residents who came from elsewhere in the nation to suburban Sacramento might have gone to Phoenix or Las Vegas if not for the new construction.

Jim Moore looked at several retirement communities in different states before moving from the Bay Area to Lincoln about a decade ago. He wanted to be close to his two daughters, but he also liked the brand-new Sun City Lincoln Hills development.

By several measures, having Moore and others like him here is a boon. He rarely drives to Sacramento, so he's not creating traffic jams. He helps employ several local workers to maintain his house. When he shops in Roseville or eats out in Lincoln, he puts money into those local economies.

"It's going pretty well," Moore said. "There are two golf courses. My wife has taken up cross-stitching. Traffic is not bad. I would say half of the people here are from the Bay Area."

Less-invasive growth seen

Planners like McKeever expect retirees, who tend to want small homes on smaller lots, to drive much of the region's future construction.

Partially because of that, McKeever's staff projects that the region's population will grow by 862,000 during the next 25 years, but will expand its urban footprint at one-tenth the pace of recent decades. The new growth will be a mix of infill – putting land in developed areas to different use – and high-density housing near employment centers like Sacramento, Rancho Cordova and Roseville, McKeever said.

Those predictions are part of SACOG's latest update to the region's transportation plan, which is closely tied to what road projects get priority for funding. SACOG's board, which is composed of municipal leaders from across the area, will discuss the update in coming months.

Burness, the environmental leader and former planner, likes much of what SACOG predicts but isn't sure it will come to fruition. He points to three ongoing efforts to expand development as likely to greatly increase the region's footprint:

• Sacramento County's preliminary approval of a plan to open up 20,000 rural acres near Jackson Highway for development.

• Elk Grove's push to open 8,000 acres south of town to development.

• Folsoms's bid to annex 3,500 acres south of the city.

All of those plans, though, call for high-density growth. McKeever said the plans can help prove the region is able to add people without eating much open space.

For the moment, the debate will play out in the abstract: The area likely won't see much new housing until the glut of foreclosures clears out of the market, which could take years, several economists said.

That's fine by Peters, the retired Elk Grove resident. She understands why cities want growth, and the good it can do. But she believes it should be undertaken with caution and foresight toward the problems it can create.

"It was too fast, too hasty," she said of the last decade's growth in her city. "I know they needed to bring in taxes, but they could have been more patient."

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