Local elected officials in our region will be asked on Thursday to renew their commitment to responsible growth. The vote before the Sacramento Area Council of Governments is an important one. As the recession draws to a close, the region needs to recommit to sound planning principles. If it doesn't, it could head back to the era of leapfrog development, worsening air pollution and potential loss of federal transportation funding.
The 31 members of SACOG's governing board are set to vote on a resolution that reaffirms the council's support for the region's prizewinning "Blueprint" growth strategy. Board members, all local elected officials from SACOG's six counties and 22 cities, are being asked to back the agency's staff. Will the planners, scientists and policy analysts who make up the SACOG staff have the latitude to comment whether a proposed development violates or complies with the Blueprint? Or will they have to pull their punches?
The vote is necessary because SACOG is under attack. Influential developers and their elected allies complain that SACOG staffers have gone beyond providing technical assistance to "lobbying against projects." In a letter to the SACOG board, Region Builders, a recently established trade association representing some local developers and construction firms, stated it plainly: "We are concerned about SACOG's opposition to projects ."
Region Builders has even gone after West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, a strong SACOG supporter. In a recent State of the City speech, Cabaldon laid out the stakes should Region Builders weaken or gut the Blueprint. He then added he would "make sure that not one penny of the hundreds of millions of dollars" his city spends on construction projects would go to companies that would undercut the Blueprint and thereby hurt West Sacramento.
Cabaldon may have crossed a line with that comment, but Region Builders has gone even more overboard with its response. The group has hired a lawyer Harmeet K. Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party to threaten a lawsuit against Cabaldon, according to a letter received Friday by Cabaldon and West Sacramento's city attorney. It's an obvious attempt to muzzle Cabaldon after previously trying to muzzle SACOG Executive Director Mike McKeever.
Joshua Wood, executive director of Region Builders, says his organization supports the Blueprint but has a concern over "accountability and process." Wood said Thursday's resolution, while not all his group wanted, "does provide clarity" and he supports it.
Whether local government officials support specific development projects or oppose them, it is vitally important that they know about the potential impacts of those projects, not just in local communities but across the region. SACOG serves that role without the heavy-handed, state-mandated growth boundaries found in other states and local jurisdictions. While cities and counties are wise to listen to SACOG's advice, they are free to ignore it. Sacramento County supervisors did so in approving the Cordova Hills development earlier this year. Local decision prerogatives were preserved. No SACOG black helicopters were later seen in the vicinity.
Apparently, some segments of the development community don't want SACOG to even offer advice. Fortunately, others including the local Building Industry Association have stood behind the Blueprint. It is a smart call. Litigation has been reduced and project approvals have been streamlined thanks to the work of SACOG. Yet smart planning hangs by a tenuous thread in this region, as the misguided power play by Region Builders has again demonstrated.