Sacramento County supervisors have scuttled a plan 25 years in the making to redevelop the former Mather Air Force Base because of concerns about endangered and threatened species.
Supervisors late Wednesday directed staff to come up with a different direction for the former base after an overflow crowd overwhelmingly indicated opposition to the plan calling for industrial, commercial and residential development and major infrastructure improvements.
More than 300 people crowded into board chambers or watched monitors outside as the board held a four-hour hearing. About 40 people spoke to the board, with all but one indicating opposition to the project. They raised concerns about additional traffic and environmental harm.
After hearing from residents who said county staff had ignored their complaints, supervisors said those concerns had persuaded them to move in another direction.
“My thinking has changed,” said Supervisor Don Nottoli, whose district includes the former base south of Highway 50 and near Rancho Cordova. “We have a natural resource out there, that being the vernal pools.”
Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that provide habitat for the fairy shrimp, a federally listed endangered species, the spadefoot toad, a candidate for the list, and other species. Most vernal pools have been lost to development and agriculture, experts say.
The development plan for Mather threatened more than 40 acres of vernal pools, including two used by Sacramento Splash, a nonprofit organization that teaches thousands of schoolchildren about them each year. Splash employees asked the county not to destroy “Critter Pool” and “Spadefoot Pool.”
The county plan offered to offset the loss of vernal pools by creating a nature preserve at Mather, but critics said the planned preserve area was too small and did not have adequate funding for proper maintenance.
Supervisors did not take a scheduled vote on the development plan, but four of the five board members indicated their opposition and then voted to continue the discussion in February. They directed staff to work with area residents and environmentalists and come up with alternative concepts to redevelop Mather, which closed as a base in 1993 and reopened two years later as a civilian airport and business park.
Supervisor Susan Peters did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. About a year ago, the state Fair Political Practices Commission announced that Peters was under investigation for possible conflict of interest violations for voting on improvements at Mather because she owns property there. Since that announcement, Peters has said she will not vote on Mather issues, even though the commission has not reached a decision in the matter.
Shortly after the base closure was announced in 1988, the Board of Supervisors started the planning process for more than 5,000 acres at Mather. Nine years ago, the board endorsed the general concept that it rejected this week.
The plan calls for the county to sell the land to the Lewis Group of Companies and another company for development. Phil Rodriguez, vice president for community development at the Lewis Group, said opponents of the plan raised good concerns and developers will work with the county to make adjustments as needed.
“We’re still very excited about this project,” he said.
Opposition to the plan was organized by neighborhood associations and Splash, which is located on the former base and funded by local governments, including the county. More than 300 people submitted protest letters to supervisors using the Splash website. The plan also drew opposition from the Sacramento branch of Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Environmental Council of Sacramento, the Sierra Club and other organizations.
County officials said they have met with area residents, environmentalists and other interested groups repeatedly as the Mather plan progressed.
But Emily Butler, executive director of Sacramento Splash, told supervisors that their concerns were not taken seriously.
“We feel like we’ve been treated like the enemy when we want to be an ally,” she said.
Nate Manley, a geologist and member of the Mather Neighborhood Alliance, echoed her remarks. The alliance was formed by residents of Mather and other nearby communities in response to the redevelopment plan.
“They call this a public process, but what has this process achieved?” he said. “Not very much.”
Manley said county staff have pushed ahead with a predetermined agenda. He said the county’s environmental impact report used a standard of allowing development with 250 feet of vernal pools. He said that standard is outdated and not based on sound science. He also said the vernal pools at Mather are downhill from planned development, meaning they would be subject to pollution runoff.
Most of the Mather-area residents who spoke to the board addressed concerns about vernal pools, but some also talked about a planned reconstruction of Zinfandel Drive. They worry it will create a “four-lane highway” in what is now a relatively quiet community.