Environment

Sacramento County expands preserve, environmental protections in Mather plan

Sacramento Splash Elementary School program Coordinator Lu-Anne Spencer-Hartle, left, and Splash Executive Director Emily Butler inspect the vernal pools near Mather on Thursday, September 17, 2015. Emily Butler is executive director of Sacramento Splash, which provides education about vernal pools at Mather. The organization challenged the Board of Supervisors last year on a plan that threatened the vernal pools.
Sacramento Splash Elementary School program Coordinator Lu-Anne Spencer-Hartle, left, and Splash Executive Director Emily Butler inspect the vernal pools near Mather on Thursday, September 17, 2015. Emily Butler is executive director of Sacramento Splash, which provides education about vernal pools at Mather. The organization challenged the Board of Supervisors last year on a plan that threatened the vernal pools. rbenton@sacbee.com

David and Joy Nahigian are surprised, and very pleased, that their first in-depth exercise in civic engagement resulted in the best possible outcome – a more environmentally friendly development plan they can support for the Mather Field south area.

The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved general plan amendments for land use in the Mather area, including a larger nature preserve, and approved a final environmental impact report for thousands of acres left over from the former Mather Air Force Base.

Supervisors sent county planners back to the drawing board in September when hundreds of residents crowded into the board chambers to oppose the plan calling for industrial, commercial and residential development.

The Nahigians, both 58, were instrumental in organizing community support after they realized the wetlands and vernal pools practically in their backyard could be in danger. They formed the Mather Neighborhood Alliance to focus on the development plan, and the group’s members comprised many of the opponents at the September board meeting.

“We became more and more concerned because we thought that the design of the plan, the way the county was going about moving through the process, might not allow us as a neighborhood to have input,” David Nahigian said.

The wetlands area, southeast of the Mather community and south of the golf course, is home to two vernal pools, Critter Pool and Spadefoot Pool. Both pools are used by Sacramento Splash, a nonprofit nature education program.

According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, experts estimate that at least 90 percent of historic vernal pool habitat in the state is gone. The Mather vernal pools, which form in the spring after rains saturate the area, provide integral habitat to many species, such as the fairy shrimp and spadefoot toad.

During a four-hour evening meeting in September, residents repeatedly asked the Board of Supervisors to ensure the vernal pools and wetlands are protected when development comes to Mather. Joy Nahigian said environmentalists from the Environmental Council of Sacramento, Sierra Club and Sacramento Splash spoke about federal and state standards surrounding wetland protection and urged the county to reconsider.

“It wasn’t just the residents, it wasn’t your normal Not-In-My-Back-Yard situation,” she said. “We believe that what we have is extremely rare and must be protected.”

Sacramento Splash organized many of the plan’s opponents as well, drawing on the thousands of families in the region whose children have gone through their program. Splash Executive Director Emily Butler told the board Tuesday that Splash supports the new plan.

At the September board meeting, supervisors directed staff to conduct more public outreach and come back with a revised plan. County staff held 12 large stakeholder meetings and six smaller ones. The situation was a little different from typical developer land use requests because the county owns the land and has more leeway in directing development. Supervisor Susan Peters recused herself from the discussions because she owns property in the Mather planning area.

Going into the meetings, David Nahigian wasn’t sure the county and the stakeholder groups would be able to work together.

“Almost from day one, it was great,” David Nahigian said.

The new plan changes a potential university into an environmental education campus and eliminates a proposed sports complex, which residents thought may drive more traffic to the area. About 100 acres was added to the nature preserve, and impacts on the wetlands were reduced.

Zinfandel Drive, which currently runs straight down to Kiefer Boulevard, will be curved to avoid the Spadefoot Pool watershed and reduce traffic speeds.

“It was very informative and educational all around,” County Principal Planner Todd Smith said.

Sacramento Splash, the Mather Neighborhood Alliance and other interested groups are not done working on the project, however. Joy Nahigian said a key issue is funding the protection of the nature preserve. She said the stakeholder group is continuing to meet with the developer to make sure future development complements the preserve and the existing community. At least three to five more years of work remain, she said.

She said she knows some people in the neighborhood wanted to block construction, an outcome she considered unrealistic.

“Some of our neighbors would have loved to have no development whatsoever,” David Nahigian said. “But there has to be compromise.”

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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