Months after Sacramento County supervisors approved a policy to reduce the amount of rural land being converted to suburbs, the board is poised to make a major exception in the east county hills.
A key selling point: the promise of a four-year university as part of a housing and commercial project.
The developers of Cordova Hills, a proposed community of 20,000-plus residents outside the current urban growth boundary, say they intend to attract a university to their site.
But similar efforts by other developers in the past decade have stalled or failed, and the university initially touted for Cordova Hills has pulled out.
The proposed community would occupy a stretch of hilly grassland east of Grant Line Road and Rancho Cordova. It will go to the supervisors for a vote as early as next month. The board gave the project an initial planning go-ahead in 2008.
Developers plan to donate 223 prime acres of their 2,700-acre site to a private university to build a residential campus for 6,000-plus students.
"We're hooked on having a higher-education component," said Ron Alvarado, a partner at Conwy LLC, the development group that bought the site in 2004. "It's an exciting part of the overall master plan ... and a regional asset."
The Legionaries of Christ, a Catholic group, had planned to locate their University of Sacramento at Cordova Hills. They dropped out last year.
Similar disappointments have occurred elsewhere in the region, where universities became a common component of major development proposals during the real estate boom.
In western Placer County, the Placer County Board of Supervisors in 2008 approved a development proposed by Angelo K. Tsakopoulos that included the donation of land for a 600-acre campus.
Several universities had showed interest in the Placer site over the years but later backed away.
The most recent prospect was Drexel University, a major East Coast school that opened an initial satellite campus in an office building that Tsakopoulos owns in Old Sacramento. In 2011, Drexel said it would not build in Placer, after all, but would focus on its operations downtown, where MBA students could have close contact with downtown businesses.
A nearly decade-old proposal, also in South Placer, included a developer's offer to donate 300 acres for a satellite California State University, Sacramento, campus. It has been delayed but is still alive, a spokesman said.
Online learning grows
Those setbacks, and new education trends, highlight the uncertainty involved for the county in counting on Cordova Hills to deliver an institution of higher learning.
Education experts point out that costly residential suburban campuses are starting to give way to smaller and more urban "click and mortar" schools that provide a mix of online and classroom courses for older, nonresident students.
"The model of higher education is changing; a lot of institutions are trying to figure out what makes sense," said Patrick Cavanaugh, head of business and finance at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
Alvarado and Tsakopoulos say their groups are adapting by looking at bringing a cluster or consortium of colleges together on each of their sites.
"It will happen; it is going to be built," Tsakopoulos vowed this week. He said the region deserves more universities in the coming decades and that his group may soon propose more potential sites. "The supervisors of the counties should start coming out welcoming colleges and universities in our region, and urging people who own land (to offer it) for that purpose," he said.
For Alvarado and partner Charles Somers, Cordova Hills represents nearly eight years of work. The pair run a national janitorial services company and have been involved in smaller projects in the area. They say their land, with its hills and valleys and panoramic views of downtown and the mountains, is a logical place to build.
They bought it in 2004 when the housing market was hot and had hoped to have houses up by now.
Standing on the property last week, Alvarado acknowledged the uncertainty of his proposal.
"It's not an easy task to attract a college," Alvarado said. But, he said, "I don't believe it is an impossible task."
Environmentalists call the Cordova Hills and South Placer County university offers ploys by developers to make it easier for them to win approvals on land that should remain open space.
Sean Wirth of the Environmental Council of Sacramento contends the county's ongoing environmental review for Cordova Hills is flawed because it assumes a university will be built.
"We are watching it very closely," Wirth said. "We will have our lawyer involved in the next round of (environmental review) comments."
Sacramento Air Quality Management District officials have expressed similar concerns.
Acknowledging uncertainty surrounding a university, county officials recently hedged their bets, getting Alvarado's group to sign an agreement that the county will take ownership of the 223-acre university site if the developers do not land a university in 30 years.
'Smart growth' sought
The Cordova Hills project arrives on the supervisors' doorstep at a signature moment. It is the first major project outside the so-called Urban Policy Area boundary to be considered since the supervisors approved the new county general plan in 2011. Several more projects in the Jackson Highway area are expected to come forward soon.
In contrast to the pre-recession era, when suburban housing tracts were booming, the new general plan calls for a more inward approach to growth. It contends that the "financial and environmental cost of low-density urban fringe growth is greater than existing and new residents are willing to pay."
The plan says the Urban Policy Area the area designated for urban development contains enough land to handle the county's anticipated growth over the next 25 years.
But the general plan allows the Board of Supervisors to approve beyond-the-boundary projects like Cordova Hills, if the board decides a project meets certain "smart growth" criteria, including being adjacent to an urban area, having relatively dense housing on site and offering good access to transit.
The proposed project is across the street from the Rancho Cordova city limit, where development is expected to arrive in the next decade. It's miles from the nearest transit line and light-rail station, but developers say they would set up a resident-financed shuttle bus to light rail in Rancho Cordova. The developers also say they'll set aside substantial areas to protect vernal pools and grasslands.
Supervisor Jimmie Yee said he leans toward approving Cordova Hills.
"I'd like to see it move forward," he said. "We on the board saw enough positive things (in 2008) to accept what they want to do out there."
Supervisor Don Nottoli, who represents the project area, also has a favorable view of the concept but said the county and developer must discuss an important question about the university: "If it doesn't come to pass, then what?"