The Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission begins hearings soon on Elk Grove’s request to include 8,000 acres south of its current city limits within its sphere of influence.
Approval would give the city a green light to annex and develop the land. This request is the largest urban expansion ever to come before LAFCO.
Elk Grove’s leaders would have us believe they simply want to plan for their future and improve their job-housing balance. Others have tried to characterize the issues as jobs vs. environment. But there is regional significance far beyond that simple calculus. Here are 10 reasons why LAFCO should turn down Elk Grove’s overreaching request:
1. Regional population projections and Elk Grove’s own 2010 market study reveal that the city, with more than 3,000 acres of vacant land within its limits, needs no additional land to meet residential and job growth projections until at least 2035. Elk Grove is currently planning its 1,200 acre Southeast Study Area and could easily designate much or all of it for employment centers.
2. Elk Grove says it wants a better jobs-housing balance yet its request is not the answer to jobs. It is at the very southwest urban edge. A 1980s tech center in Laguna never took off. A major regional mall site at Elk Grove’s edge lies vacant. It is not rational to expect major job growth. There is every expectation of more residential sprawl.
3. Approximately 75 percent of the 8,000 acre expansion request is outside the urban service boundary. The boundary is not just a line on the county general plan. It is also the basis for long-term planning of urban services in the region, particularly sewer and water. It is the basis for the Water Forum agreement and the county’s master water supply plan.
4. There is inadequate surface water available to ensure that we can accommodate growth already planned inside the USB and develop 6,000 more acres outside the urban service boundary, while still meeting the Water Forum agreement to maintain groundwater.
5. The request is inconsistent with the adopted Metropolitan Transportation Plan and Sustainable Communities Strategy. It is also inconsistent with the Regional Ozone Attainment Plan.
6. The area, particularly the land west of Highway 99, is vital foraging area for many waterfowl and raptor species. The Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Cosumnes River Preserve are significant public investments to protect wetland roosting areas for migratory waterfowl, including greater sandhill cranes, and swainson’s hawks. Loss of their foraging habitat to vineyard conversion and solar energy projects add to the challenges of maintaining good foraging options.
7. Approval threatens the ability to implement the draft South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan. Successful implementation of the plan requires a relatively low ratio of land to be protected compared to the total acres suitable for protection. Approval would skew land prices upward, reduce willing sellers, and create serious challenges to adopting a viable implementation plan.
8. The area almost entirely comprises lands of statewide agricultural significance. LAFCO’s mandate is to protect agricultural land where possible. Elk Grove’s request directly challenges that mandate. The Sacramento County Farm Bureau opposes the expansion because of the detrimental effect of losing 8,000 acres of farmland.
9. Elk Grove does have another urban growth option -- the Florin Vineyard area to the northeast. It has much less agricultural and habitat value than Elk Grove’s request, and is surrounded by urban development on three sides. Lack of freeway access and multiple ownerships do present challenges. But given its mandate to protect agriculture, LAFCO must acknowledge that the city does have expansion options.
10. Elk Grove ingenuously says that there is no plan for developing the area; it just wants the ability to reserve land to plan for the future growth. But there really isn’t another viable competitor for the area’s development. Approval will set in motion speculative land purchases and generate proposals to finance an annexation request well before the need for development. Elk Grove does not need the expanded sphere of influence to be approved in order to plan for post 2035 development.
Lack of need, questionable prospects for job growth and uncertainty of enough water for planned growth stand in marked contrast to the high agricultural and habitat value of the land requested for expansion. LAFCO should convey to Elk Grove the need to act consistent with adopted regional plans and to focus on job growth within its existing 3,000 vacant acres. In the meantime, give the habitat conservation plan a reasonable chance to succeed and provide an opportunity to establish certainty of an adequate water supply. That is the regionally responsible course of action for LAFCO.
Robert Burness is a retired county planner and a board member of the Environmental Council of Sacramento, Habitat 2020 and the Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge Association.