What is commonly called "sprawl" reduces the availability of affordable farmland, open space and habitat. Its associated lifestyle increases greenhouse gas emissions, reduces air quality, lessens needed physical activity, and usually gives the municipal governments a negative return on investment, adding to the strain on local government budgets.
When we stop sprawling, we free up huge amounts of capital to invest in our existing neighborhoods. Residential streets and commercial corridors can become more inviting and comfortable, businesses can enjoy more local and walk-in patronage, and empty storefronts can become rare. Simply put, we would stop paving over farmland, rangeland, habitat and open space, and add new development only where there is already development.
Developers are now urging Sacramento County supervisors to approve Cordova Hills, a 2,700-acre development that includes about 1.3 million square feet of commercial space, 8,000 residential units and the remote possiblity of a future university campus. It would sit east of Grant Line Road at the eastern edge of Sacramento County. It is not included in the Regional Transportation Plan or the SACOG "blueprint" for development in the short term. Translated, that means that no one thinks this development is needed to help meet population growth for at least several more decades.
As metro Sacramento grows, how do we "protect and preserve" existing neighborhoods and still house more people into already-developed areas? Without enough care and planning, a conflict is set up with existing neighborhoods, and the resulting insults ("Nanny!", "NIMBY!") make it a lose-lose situation.
The fix requires reinvestment of public funds back into our existing neighborhoods, not proposed new developments. It improves all our property values, and makes our community a more pleasant, productive place. But how do we strengthen our existing neighborhoods while housing more people? We put like with like. We put the six-story high-rise apartment or condo building next to the eight-story we already have. The rehabilitated strip mall? Add workforce housing. Put new schools in the middle of communities, rather than building new communities around remote new schools. Developers should love it. More units per acre can mean more profits per acre.
How can we break the sprawl habit? As every smoker knows, the only way to stop smoking is to make an irrevocable commitment to quit. Not "try" to quit, or "intend" to quit, or study quitting for a couple of years.
Quitting also needs a supportive environment, one that does not continue to entice with low prices and policies that put supporting the addiction above everyone else's health and safety. In the case of sprawl, the enticing environment is the result of current zoning ordinances and lower developer fees that favor sprawl over reinvestment.
The instructions for our boom-and-bust real estate cycle did not come down from Mount Sinai written on tablets. We made them, and we can change them.
But once entitlement occurs and the concrete is poured, it, too, is an irrevocable commitment. The value of nearby open land will skyrocket, "good" private investment (made possible by "bad" public investment) will follow, agriculture will be priced out of that market, and here we go again.
Today's suburb, tomorrow's foreclosure factory. Game over.
It's been studied for centuries. We know that boom-and-bust tears at the fabric of our communities the people who benefit from the boom are not the same people who lose out from the bust. Our economic crisis should be enough to show us the folly of doing more of the same.
If we want to reinvest in our existing neighborhoods, we have to stop investing in pouring more concrete and providing health and safety services to new, distant developments. It's really that simple. And it starts with the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors denying the requested entitlements for Cordova Hills on Dec. 12.