Editorial: Approval of Cordova Hills is a body blow for smart planning

Published: Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Over the past decade, the Sacramento area has received national attention for its regional "Blueprint," a cooperative effort by local governments to guide growth in a way that benefits both the economy and environment, without the kind of state-mandated growth boundaries found in other states.

On Tuesday evening, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors all but shredded the Blueprint. Against the warnings of the architect of this regional plan – Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments – four of five supervisors approved Cordova Hills, a 2,700-acre development that violates both the spirit and letter of the region's planning principles.

Adopted by SACOG in 2004, the Blueprint emphasizes agricultural preservation and "conserving resources and protecting species." Yet much of the commercial development planned for Cordova Hills would be on sensitive vernal pools. That's inconsistency number one.

The Blueprint also emphasizes "use of existing assets" – in other words, a priority of infill over development of vacant lands. Cordova Hills is a vast expanse of undeveloped ranchland that, until Tuesday, sat outside the county's urban policy area. That's inconsistency number two.

Finally, the Blueprint emphasizes contiguous, instead of detached, development. Separated land uses "lead to the need to travel more by auto because of the distances between uses." Yet the county approved Cordova Hills ahead of some other proposed projects closer to existing light-rail stations and existing job centers. That's inconsistency number three.

There's still a decent chance that Cordova Hills will never be built.

Developers must get federal permits for destroying habitat. Conservation groups may successfully stop it in court, adding heft to their claims that the California Environmental Quality Act should remain largely untouched.

Yet even if Cordova Hills is blocked, the damage is done. Having seen Sacramento County brush off the Blueprint, other local governments will be tempted to do the same. The net result could be more agricultural lands rezoned for suburban developments across the region, adding to more long-distance travel, air pollution and lost open space and wildlife habitat.

As presented to the board, Cordova Hills offers some attractive features – among them a nature preserve, trails and a shuttle service. Its developers hope to attract a university to part of the site, and have pledged to donate land for that purpose.

Clearly this would be a different discussion if Cordova Hills had secured a university partner. But it hasn't, and it probably won't. As this page (and several speakers Tuesday) have noted, the region already has other approved sites for universities but has failed to attract any. Why? Universities are finding it more cost-effective to invest in digital learning than new satellite campuses.

It's tempting to call the Board of Supes "the board of dupes" for approving a university project that may never land a university. But we seriously doubt that any of the supervisors are convinced a university is likely. Several of them probably would have voted for Cordova Hills without a promised campus component, because of their fidelity to the building industry that helps ensure they don't face serious competition when seeking re-election.

At Tuesday's hearing, McKeever and others presented convincing data and arguments that the region already had an oversupply of land zoned for commercial and residential construction. He noted air pollution credits used up by Cordova Hills could hurt the county if it attempted to lure a major employer to the region.

Those arguments fell on deaf ears. At least one supervisor, Susan Peters, had already written her speech in support of Cordova Hills. An evening that ended with a mockery of sound planning was also a mockery of a public process.

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