A group of Natomas farming families and their backers got the go-ahead this week from Sacramento County leaders to plan what would be one of the largest new communities in the region, to be built on fields just southeast of Sacramento International Airport.
If their concept comes to fruition, the new community could be home to 25,000 residents a generation from now near the undulating banks of the Sacramento River a few miles north of downtown.
Proponents say they envision a more urban-style community than what is currently found in Natomas, with a central village of four- and five-story residential and commercial buildings. Early concepts include 10,000 dwelling units and commercial and retail space that could be equivalent to the size of five Arden Fair Malls.
The project, however, would be built in an environmentally sensitive and floodable area of Natomas, and already is the subject of numerous concerns.
Area residents express worries about the project’s likely traffic impacts on Interstate 80, Interstate 5, West El Camino Avenue and the Garden Highway. Others say the project could exacerbate existing jet noise and safety issues in Natomas. And environmentalists argue that such a large development means paving prime wildlife habitat and farmland. The project, they say, could undermine existing habitat conservation agreements that limit the amount of acreage to be developed in the Natomas basin.
The site also is outside of the county’s existing urban development boundary. In order to allow development, county officials would have to amend the county’s growth plan and extend the boundary west toward the river.
County Supervisor Phil Serna, who represents that area, led a board vote Tuesday to allow the group to begin planning for development, but warned proponents they are far from assured of winning formal approval to build.
“This is an extremely risky pursuit,” he said. “I wouldn’t be putting my money on it.”
The county board also agreed this week to an agreement in which the development group will pay the county $2 million to compensate it for staff time working on the planning process.
One resident of the affected area, Jasmine Shahbandi, said the payment could present a conflict of interest on the part of the county, suggesting county staff are working for the developer to allow the community to be built. County Executive Navdeep Gill said that is not the case. County planners intend to bring the best recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, he said. “We do not bring any bias into the process,” he said.
Development spokesman Bob Thomas, previously Sacramento County’s executive, said his group understands it has numerous hurdles to jump, including wildlife habitat agreements. “This is the first step in a marathon,” he said. His group, a limited liability corporation, includes a number of farming families, he said.
Thomas said a majority of the property owners in the area have agreed to launch the effort to get the land rezoned for housing.
The site, formerly referred to as the “boot district,” based on its shape, is now called the Upper Westside Specific Plan area. It is one of a handful of areas in the Natomas basin that are being targeted as future communities.
Of those, it is the closest to the downtown Sacramento central business district, the region’s main job center. Like those, however, it is across the Sacramento and American rivers from downtown.