Commission blocks Elk Grove’s expansion plans

Elk Grove’s bid to expand its boundaries by 30 percent was shot down by a local planning agency late Wednesday.

The Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission voted 5-2 against the city’s application to expand its planning area by 8,000 acres to the south. The commission also turned down a less expansive compromise proposal offered by Commission Executive Director Peter Brundage that would have expanded the planning area by 4,000 acres.

The city already had cut its original growth plan almost in half since it was submitted to LAFCO more than five years ago.

City officials said they need the area to plan for future growth and to attract employers to an area that has far more residents than jobs. But residents, environmentalists and farmers said the plan would create sprawl, hurt endangered areas and convert valuable farmland into tract housing.

Elk Grove leaders expressed disappointment, insisting the action would stifle future job growth. “We need land to attract employers,” Mayor Gary Davis said.

Approval of the city’s sphere of influence would not have meant the city could approve development there. The city would have had to petition LAFCO again to annex the area before approving development and providing services.

Commissioners Jimmie Yee and Susan Peters, also county supervisors, voted in favor of Elk Grove’s proposal. Yee said it provided the only opportunity for the city to grow, as it is hemmed in by environmental factors in other directions.

But other commissioners said they were concerned about the impact the plan would have on the area south of Bilby, Kammerer and Grant Line roads and near the Franklin-Laguna community. In particular, commissioners were worried about the loss of farmland.

“This is active ag land,” said Commissioner Gay Jones, noting that the area produces $14 million worth of commodities annually. “This is not a vacuum.”

In an email Thursday to The Sacramento Bee, Commissioner Kevin McCarty, a Sacramento City Council member, laid out his case for voting against the proposal.

“We need to focus more on infill development to preserve habitat and prime farmland, reduce sprawl and promote smart growth,” McCarty said.

Peter Detwiler, a California State University, Sacramento, professor and an expert on local government, called the vote a “pivoting movement for the Sacramento LAFCO.”

“Spheres of influence up and down the Central Valley are way too big and ambitious,” Detwiler said. “LAFCO is saying: not here, not now, not that city.”

Elk Grove will not be able to appeal the decision.

“The commission doesn’t have any legal obligation to hear an appeal,” Brundage said.

Officials at the Sacramento County Farm Bureau spoke against the plan, saying it would lead farmers to sell land for development, and take active farms out of production many years before any development was approved to replace them.

Even though the issue has received extensive debate over the years, Wednesday night’s hearing lasted more than five hours. While some residents and city officials spoke in favor of the expansion, most of the night’s speakers were in opposition.

“We don’t need more urban sprawl,” said Elk Grove resident Nikki Carpenter.

Former Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo raised the same complaint to the commission: The expansion would lead to continued, excessive suburbanization or sprawl. She said the plan would hurt the Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ Blueprint for growth.

Environmentalists at the hearing said they were concerned about the effect the expansion would have on the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan. Federal, state and local officials have been working on a plan to protect environmentally sensitive areas in the southern part of the county.

Advocacy groups, including the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit partner of the Cosumnes River Preserve, hailed the decision as a victory.

“The wildlife that visit the preserve also depend on agriculture in the region. Species like sandhill cranes spend part of their time here, but they also need regional agriculture to help maintain them,” said Jesse Roseman, project director for the Nature Conservancy.

While the city has argued that it is running out of available land – particularly large parcels to attract major employers – commissioners said they were not convinced that the city doesn’t have enough available land to last for a while.

With the sphere of influence off the table, city leaders are figuring out what’s next.

“In the long term, it’s a setback. You lose out on the synergy of having a large corridor where you could master plan,” said Elk Grove City Council member Patrick Hume.