Sacramento County supervisors approved a 2,700- acre development on the eastern edge of the county despite widespread concern about the project causing sprawl and pollution.
In a hearing that lasted more than five hours Tuesday, supervisors voted 4-1 to amend its general plan to allow Cordova Hills to build up to 8,000 housing units off Grant Line Road next to Rancho Cordova.
Supervisor Phil Serna, who voted no, said he could not overlook the fact that the developer failed to follow through on a promise to secure a university for the project.
"I have yet to hear from anyone in these chambers why this is a good project to do right now," Serna said. "What is really driving the need to do this now?"
After Serna's remarks, Supervisor Susan Peters said she supported the project because she considers it "smart growth" and it will help the region attract a university.
Developer Ron Alvarado, who earlier lost a university that planned to build at Cordova Hills, said he will continue to work to attract another one.
He also made an agreement to pay for the initial infrastructure costs for a university, to keep land set aside for one, and to give the county the land should he fail to attract one.
Supervisors agreed that once a university was no longer secure, the project's potential environmental problems became a larger concern.
In fact, supervisors in 2008 overturned a decision by the county's planning director to reject Cordova Hills, in part because "it would allow for the near-term accommodation of a private university," according to findings adopted by the board at the time.
Some opponents suggested it was foolish for the board to now approve the project on the outside chance it would attract a university. Universities aren't expanding much lately, and several developers and jurisdictions in the region are trying to attract one, according to testimony Tuesday.
Among those trying to recruit a university are the city of Folsom and Sacramento County at the former Mather Air Force Base.
But Peters, who used to work in commercial real estate, said the county needs an abundance of locations if it hopes to attract a university.
About 30 people spoke to the board about the project, most of them in opposition. The board chambers were full of red signs saying "Just Say No! Sprawl Hurts Us All!"
"We're creating sprawl and air pollution," said Phyllis Eller. "Look at the red signs: The public is opposed to this."
"We are guardians of the land and we should protect it," said Sheri Rondini, who lives in unincorporated Sacramento County. "I'm questioning whether I want to continue to live here."
The project received support from business and construction groups, such as the Sacramento Metro Chamber, while drawing opposition from environmentalists, including the regional chapter of the Sierra Club.
Opponents called the project sprawl because it is located at the edge of the county and away from its population center of Sacramento.
Because of its distant location, Cordova Hills could make it difficult to meet state standards for greenhouse gas emissions, which are thought to cause global warming, said Mike McKeever of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments.
The project doesn't meet the region's transportation plan, which was approved last year by elected officials in the area, he said. Those voting for the transportation plan included three supervisors Serna, Peters and Roberta MacGlashan.
The region barely expects to meet greenhouse gas standards in 2035 and Cordova Hills could push it out of compliance, McKeever said.
When pressed by the supervisors, McKeever refused to back down.
In a letter to supervisors on Monday, Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who authored the bill that led to those standards, wrote: "To achieve the state's greenhouse gas reduction goals, significant greenhouse gas reductions from both changed land use patterns and improved transportation are critical."
McKeever and Serna said the county could potentially lose federal transportation funding by approving Cordova Hills.
But a former federal highway administrator, Richard Capka, told the supervisors that approval of Cordova Hills alone would not jeopardize federal transportation funding. Capka now works for a consulting firm that has been working on Cordova Hills.
Alvarado and the other developers agreed to a long list of requirements in order to receive approval, including infrastructure improvements such as roads, and setting aside land for farming and environmental needs.
In addition to housing, the project is slated to have a town center with 1 million square feet of office and commercial space, a nature preserve, trails and shuttle service.