Stuart Leavenworth

Stuart Leavenworth: County must get out of development biz

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 - 9:17 am

It's an all-too-familiar pattern: Land speculators purchase a ranch on the periphery of existing cities. Hungry for new tax revenue – particularly the sales tax that flows from a major shopping center – Sacramento County eagerly processes permits for the project, regardless of impacts on traffic, air quality, nearby cities or the region's overall real estate market.

It's happening again. Last week, Sacramento County supervisors were on the verge of approving Cordova Hills, a 2,700- acre project east of Rancho Cordova. The only reason they delayed was because of persistent questions by Supervisor Phil Serna. He's skeptical that the county has adequately analyzed the project's potential impacts, particularly if Cordova Hills fails to attract a planned university to the site.

Thousands of foreclosed homes sit empty around the Sacramento region. Tens of thousands of acres have been approved for development, where they will sit idle until a real estate market recovery justifies moving dirt around.

Given those conditions, why is Sacramento County considering approval of a project that would add 8,000 housing units and 1.3 million square feet of commercial space to a market that is oversaturated?

The conventional – and cynical – answer is that county supervisors are feathering their political nests. The building industry is a major campaign contributor. By approving Cordova Hills, elected officials can be assured of campaign support and have no fear they'll be threatened by developer-backed opponents.

That may explain part of the county's impetus, but not all of it. The more fundamental driver is the county's crumbling finances and unwillingness to change a paradigm that has led to its downturn.

For decades, Sacramento County separated itself from most other counties by acting like a municipality, approving auto malls, big-box stores and nearby subdivisions to provide patrons for those stores. The resulting tax revenue helped build up the county's treasury, allowing it to expand the Sheriff's Department and provide generous benefits for retired county employees.

It worked for a while, but then cities started incorporating and expanding, taking away some of the county's sugar daddies and building auto malls of their own. Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova and Citrus Heights became cities, and Folsom has become a retail force, with plans for expanding south across Highway 50.

Because of Proposition 13 and state strictures on using property tax revenue for schools, the county is dependent on sales taxes to pay for the services required in the urbanized, unincorporated sections of the county. With pension costs rising as more county employees retire, the county either has to find new revenue sources or further diminish services and sheriff's patrols in the "Uncity" – the term The Bee's editorial board coined long ago for Sacramento County's unincorporated urban area.

It's a vicious downward cycle. To pay for past sprawl, Sacramento must embrace new forms. Cordova Hills offers the prospect of helping the county with its revenue needs, partly because a large portion of the property would be zoned for mixed-use retail.

Over the years, the county has worked hard to make sure that Cordova Hills would remain in its orbit. According to David Sander, mayor of Rancho Cordova, the owners of Cordova Hills approached his city soon after incorporation, inquiring if Rancho Cordova would be interested in annexing the property. Rancho Cordova prepared the necessary documents, but because of intervention by Sacramento County, the process came to a screeching halt.

"We were told at the time that the county came down hard on project proponents, suggesting that the only way to move this project forward was through the county," said Sander in an email to The Bee's editorial board. "Given the county's stranglehold an annexations, this was a very real threat, and one that the owners apparently gave in to."

Sacramento County must get out of the development business. It lacks the resources to maintain services over time, and its willingness to embrace leapfrog development adds to regional challenges of traffic, air pollution and deteriorating older suburbs.

Yet if Sacramento County is going to stop adding to the Uncity, two things must happen:

• Sacramento County's cities and their mayors must create a united front against the county and projects it seeks to develop, such as Cordova Hills.

• Those mayors in turn should press the Legislature to pass laws that would deal with the underlying problem. Counties need adequate resources to pay for services the state mandates and that cities benefit from. But to get those resources, counties need to stop competing with cities for development projects.

There may be a day when Cordova Hills should be developed, either because its owners have landed a university project of regional importance, or because market conditions demonstrate there is a need for new housing and retail.

But that day is not now. The only thing propelling this project forward is Sacramento County's dysfunction and the needs of developers and consultants to enjoy a long-awaited payday. It's part of pattern that must be confronted and brought to a halt.

About that Pope cartoon

Numerous readers called and wrote in response to a cartoon by Rob Rogers we ran on Dec. 7. Roger's cartoon poked fun at Pope Benedict XVI's new use of Twitter. Rogers depicted the pope tweeting a message that said, "OMG. This 21st Century technology is great for spreading my 15th Century views on gays, women and contraception! LOL."

Most of the responses offered reasonable criticisms, particularly Rogers' decision to depict the pope with bulging eyes. But some crossed into territory that deserves a response on our part.

Publishing a single cartoon does not show that The Bee is involved in a "war against Christianity" or the Catholic Church. We report all the time the good works of Catholics and others who are devout in our region.

The pope is a religious leader, but there's no debating that the Vatican has considerable political influence. Should he be off limits to political commentary and cartooning? I don't think so. Nor do I think that a cartoon about the pope maligns all Catholics, any more than a cartoon taking shots at the president maligns all Americans.

As for claims The Bee would never run a cartoon making fun of Muslim religious leaders, that's not true. We've run cartoons about the ayatollah in Iran. We've run cartoons about leaders of other religions, such as Pat Robertson.

We will continue to do so, aware that most readers recognize cartoons for what they are – cartoons.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stuart Leavenworth, Editorial page editor

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