Regional growth doesn’t always follow the plan, study shows

Traffic stretches westward in 2005 along Sheldon Road in Elk Grove. The Blueprint regional development plan sought to restrain suburban development.
Traffic stretches westward in 2005 along Sheldon Road in Elk Grove. The Blueprint regional development plan sought to restrain suburban development. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento’s landmark 2004 “Blueprint” plan to restrain suburban development has had some positive effects, but overall “did little to check raging growth on the fringe of the region,” according to a study published Wednesday in the Journal of American Planning Association.

The study, entitled “Do Local Development Outcomes Follow Voluntary Regional Plans? Evidence From Sacramento Region’s Blueprint Plan” looks at the effort by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to slow the type of growth that leads to long commutes, congestion, and added air pollution.

The report, conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, concluded the region’s joint planning effort did not have as much effect as planners likely desired, in large part because individual cities and counties in the region are not required to follow the Blueprint growth philosophy of denser, transit-oriented style development in or adjacent to urbanized areas.

The study authors, Illinois urban planning lecturer Dustin Allred and urban planning professor Arnab Chakraborty, said they found bright spots, such as controlled, urban-style growth in Davis. But they said more development occurred in outlying “greenfield” areas.

“Areas that should have been prioritized as meeting smart growth principles weren’t the areas where development was being approved,” Allred said.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors recently approved a controversial development southeast of Grant Line Road called Cordova Hills that is inconsistent with Blueprint goals. Elk Grove also has annexed thousands of acres for new growth that does not fit Blueprint principles, the Illinois report authors say.

SACOG chief executive Mike McKeever countered that the report appears to have an anti-suburb bias. Greenfield or open space development can be consistent with Blueprint principles if designed correctly, he said. He also said it is too early to get a solid view of the effectiveness of the plan, which seeks to influence development patterns over a 45-year period.

“We never were delusional to think that everything was going to change on a dime,” McKeever said. Growth in the last decade has been unusual, he said, with a huge spurt of the early 2000s when pre-Blueprint projects were in the pipeline, followed by a complete collapse of home building in 2007.

Sacramento’s Blueprint effort involved three years of discussions among leaders in dozens of cities and six local counties, leading to a voluntary agreement among cities and counties that the region should focus its growth on smaller footprints. The effort, lead by SACOG, has won national recognition for pulling together leaders from disparate urban, suburban and rural communities, and getting them to agree to a basic growth approach.

The region has begun to see more dense housing projects lately near jobs, with more walking, biking and transit options. That includes development along the West Sacramento riverfront and in downtown Sacramento, and in the central areas of other cities, including Roseville and Folsom.

Development plans in Folsom, however, offer an example of the region’s mixed results. The city has been adding denser housing in its downtown next to a light-rail transit line, but also is poised to expand south of Highway 50 with development on open grasslands.

Folsom city officials have worked with developers to design those south of Highway 50 communities in a more urban style, making them consistent with the Blueprint, but environmentalists point out that those developments still represent sprawl growth, and that the region should be rebuilding the region’s aging closer-in suburbs first.

The report authors say Sacramento’s experience is cautionary, but authors give Sacramento planners credit for sparking a conversation among city leaders about growth.

“Blueprint type plans have become popular around the country,” the Illinois study authors say. “But, as the researchers show, just signing on to a regional plan doesn’t translate into appropriate actions by local governments, overcoming local resistance and self-interest.

“While this research underscores the limitations of voluntary regional planning efforts in a decentralized network of local governments, the (Sacramento) regional process did provide a forum in which local governments could discuss and debate new planning ideas, possibly leading to greater implementation of some approaches than in the absence of the process.”