Taking aim at suburban growth

The priorities of Sacramento County’s pro-growth supervisors were clear Friday as they made “Suburbs: Popular and Politically Incorrect” the keynote speech at their annual State of the County event.

Author Joel Kotkin, a Chapman University fellow and Forbes.com columnist who frequently defends suburban development, found a largely sympathetic audience as he addressed more than 300 people at the Sheraton Grand Sacramento.

A majority of Sacramento County supervisors support ongoing suburban growth, including Cordova Hills, which calls for up to 8,000 housing units and commercial development in the eastern part of the county and has faced opposition from environmentalists.

Like Kotkin, pro-growth supervisors have expressed frustration with policies they say hinder such development. Many of the county’s plans are focused on largely undeveloped parts of the southern county, which to some degree run against the thinking of planners who would like to concentrate development in more established urban areas.

The county paid $15,000 to the Sacramento Metro Chamber to run the event, but the business group would not say how much it paid Kotkin to speak. He is listed on the website of the Leigh Bureau, which bills itself as the “premium speakers bureau serving business and sophisticated cultural audiences worldwide.”

The Sacramento region received national recognition several years ago when elected officials approved the “Blueprint,” a planning strategy that puts greater emphasis on infill development.

Kotkin took aim at such thinking Friday. He showed a picture of a sign that read in part: “Is Suburbia the New Hell?”

“This is basically where we’re going in California,” said Kotkin, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Kotkin also drew guffaws when he showed a picture of two hippies in tie-dyed clothes and said “grand promises” such as growth in “green jobs” and “social media” won’t save California.

Sacramento’s strength is having relatively low-cost housing and established neighborhoods, he said. However, government policies, such as high impact fees, could stop the area from fully realizing its potential, he said. Impact fees are charged to developers to offset the costs of government services. According to Kotkin, California’s are the highest in the country.

County Supervisor Susan Peters said she supports Kotkin’s message. “Suburbs are great places to work and live, and we need to keep them that way,” she said.

Supervisor Phil Serna, who has a largely urban district that includes much of the city of Sacramento, was less impressed.

“It was like watching a Rodney Dangerfield routine about suburban development,” said Serna, a former planning consultant who has sometimes been critical of suburban development while on the board.

He said Kotkin ignored information that undermines his argument. For instance, in mentioning California’s high impact fees, Kotkin failed to mention Proposition 13, the limit on property taxes that created greater need for the fees, Serna said.

Former supervisor and current state Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, also found Kotkin’s speech a little too skewed. “He set up a straw man and proceeded to knock it down,” Dickinson said.

Kotkin’s argument is that suburban development is now out of favor, when the reality is that planners want a greater variety of development in suburban and urban areas, Dickinson said.