As Sacramento County considers development, industrial firms face heat

In 2006, David and Beth Smiley paid a $500 consultation fee to the Sacramento County Planning Department to find out how to get the right land-use designation for their business on Elder Creek Road. County officials told them they could not change the zoning until the department finished a community plan for the area.

Earlier this year, the county let the Smileys know they are out of compliance with the zoning code and would have to make a $25,000 deposit to start the review process to change the zoning. County officials can’t say how much the review will eventually cost the Smileys – nor guarantee that county supervisors will approve the zoning change once the review is complete.

About 30 businesses just east of Sacramento are caught in the same situation as the Smileys, having received notices of alleged code violations. Like the Smileys, who own Thunder Mountain Enterprises, an environmental management company, most of the businesses are industrial and have commercial vehicles on their properties, which aren’t allowed under the area’s agricultural zoning.

The West Jackson Highway area has long been home to some of the county’s noisiest, least sightly businesses – rock quarries, contractor yards and other similar operations. For decades, they have not had to worry much about upsetting residents, because few people live in the area. The location suited such businesses because residential and commercial development stayed away due to airplane noise from nearby Mather Air Force Base.

Now the base is closed, and the area represents the future of residential development in Sacramento County. Two companies that have long excavated the area, Teichert and Granite, plan to turn old mining property into a 5,900-acre, mixed-use development with housing and commercial businesses. The project is one of five master-planned communities under development in the eastern part of the county.

David Smiley said the county is trying to get rid of the old to make way for the new. His property is included in the area Teichert and Granite are asking the county to rezone for their master planned community. Teichert and Granite own nearly 70 percent of the land in the planning area.

“Give us an option that’s affordable for the little guys,” Smiley said. “I don’t think that’s what the county wants. I think they want the big money.”

Carl Simpson, head of the county’s code enforcement division, said the move to bring the businesses into compliance has nothing to do with the Teichert and Granite development. Some of the actions were spurred by complaints from neighbors, while others were the result of code enforcement officers noticing other properties in violation when they were responding to the complaints, he said.

When Simpson started working for the county in 2006, he found there was an acceptance of many businesses operating outside their proper zoning areas.

County planning officials acknowledge that Thunder Mountain and other businesses may face a conflict from the Teichert-Granite project. Supervisors will be asked to approve new zoning there and could decide that industrial businesses conflict with the residential aspects of the Teichert-Granite project.

Supervisor Don Nottoli said that’s one reason why he supports giving some of the businesses permits for a limited period, so the county can re-evaluate their situation as the area’s character begins to change. Nottoli represents the area, and supervisors often defer to the representing supervisor in development matters.

Principal planner Tricia Stevens said the county is working with the businesses so they can submit a combined application and share the cost of the $25,000 deposit and future review expenses. The county charges property owners for the staff time to review land-use proposals, which in this case would have to evaluate environmental impacts from any use allowed under the proposed zoning.

The Smileys said they’re worried about the uncertainty of the cost and the outcome associated with the review process. They say having to pay the county’s costs could put them and other area companies out of business. They also say they’re confused about their rights, so they’ve hired attorney Aldon Bolanos to represent them in the dispute with the county.

David Smiley said his business struggled through the economic downturn, going from 50 employees to eight, including him, his wife and his daughter. If he can’t remain on Elder Creek, he said he will move his business to Amador County, but won’t sell the property.

“I’ll grow corn out there,” he said. “I won’t let them have the land.”