As Sacramento County's real-estate market starts to pick up, some tiny animals could put the brakes on development plans, including the just-approved Cordova Hills project.
Five of the largest development proposals in the county are planned for its southeast side, where large swaths of land are dotted with vernal pools, seasonal wetlands that house threatened species such as the fairy and tadpole shrimp.
Developers will need to get federal permits before filling in vernal pools. The permitting process is time-consuming and raises the prospect of lawsuits from environmental groups challenging the adequacy of plans to mitigate lost habitat.
"As a practical matter, this is going to take years," said Carol Witham of the California Native Plant Society.
The owners of Cordova Hills have applied for a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fill in 40 acres of vernal pools, wetlands and other federally regulated waterways on the property, which is just east of Rancho Cordova, right up against the county growth boundary.
Approved by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors by a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the 2,700-acre Cordova Hills development would include up to 8,000 housing units, commercial development and a town square.
The Cordova Hills development team applied for its permits in 2007 and can't expect to receive a mitigation plan until 2014, said Lisa Gibson, a project manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has responsibility for federal waters under the Clean Water Act.
Developers who applied for permits to fill vernal pools for Rancho Cordova projects in 2004 did not receive final approval until 2011.
A federal lawsuit filed by the California Native Plant Society and other organizations forced the Corps of Engineers to come up with a new mitigation plan for vernal pools.
A U.S. District Court judge issued an preliminary injunction in the case in 2007, bringing work on the projects to a halt. As a result of the lawsuit, the Corps of Engineers issued a decision in 2011 requiring mitigation of the loss of vernal pools in what is called the Mather Core Recovery Area.
The area runs on both sides of Jackson Highway and covers thousands of acres. That area and a larger area to the south, called the Cosumnes/Rancho Seco Core Area, have been designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as vernal pool recovery areas.
Vernal pools, depressions in the ground that fill with water in winter and explode with bloom in spring, once stretched along much of the Central Valley's eastern edge. What remains in the Sacramento area is just a remnant.
Estimates place the amount of lost vernal pools at 87 percent to 93 percent, said Witham, a biologist. Much of the recent loss has come because of urban development, although agriculture historically has played a major role.
A majority of supervisors supported the Cordova Hills project, saying it represents smart growth and citing the developer's pledge to attract a private university to the site. It also received support from business and construction groups.
In addition to Cordova Hills, the county is considering four other master-planned communities in areas with vernal pools. Those projects are expected to bring up to 30,000 housing units to the area.
Environmentalists are weighing whether to file a court challenge to Sacramento County's decision to approve Cordova Hills, according to Witham and Rob Burness of the Environmental Council of Sacramento. They declined to discuss what the grounds for such a lawsuit might be.
In addition to concerns about the vernal pools, critics say the development will contribute to urban sprawl and isn't needed to meet the region's housing demand. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments says the development will make it harder for the region to achieve the state's goals for reducing greenhouse gases.
Witham said she would like to see the property's vernal pools preserved in a new state park because they are of particularly good quality. "The pools in Cordova Hills are right up there with the best I've ever seen," she said.
The property's vernal pools are diverse in size, which means they attract a greater diversity of species than most others. In addition to fairy and tadpole shrimp, the pools have Sacramento Orcutt grass, which grows only in Sacramento County, she said.
Gregory Thatch, an attorney representing Cordova Hills developers Ron Alvarado and Mark Hanson, said it's too early to say exactly what will be done to mitigate the loss of vernal pools. However, at the county's request, the developers agreed to double an on-site preserve to more than 500 acres, he said. The project will require off-site mitigation, too, he said.
Part of the reason the permitting process for building in vernal pool territory takes so long is that Sacramento County has failed to complete a habitat conservation plan that would cover the entire county south of the American River. Such a plan governs building in Sacramento city's portion of North Natomas, where developers devote a set amount of money to buy habitat land for each acre they develop.
The South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan in the works since the 1990s eventually will earmark what habitat is most important to preserve. In some cases, that would involve buying land and in others protecting land on planned developments. The idea is to make habitat protection a smoother process for developers and environmentalists, said Sacramento County Planning Director Leighann Moffitt.
The plan has taken a long time to complete because it involves complex issues and a number of agencies, Moffitt said. Sacramento County is the lead agency on the plan, which also includes Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove, Galt, the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District and the joint powers authority planning the Capital SouthEast Connector road.
The county submitted a proposal to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010, but the federal agency rejected it as insufficient, in part because of its treatment of vernal pools, Moffitt said.
The county hopes to have a final plan approved within two years, Moffitt said.