Editorials

Don’t rush Natomas building as moratorium ends

Weeds sprout from an unfinished lot in Natomas last May. When a building moratorium is lifted this summer, city planners propose limiting new residential development.
Weeds sprout from an unfinished lot in Natomas last May. When a building moratorium is lifted this summer, city planners propose limiting new residential development. Sacramento Bee file

The last thing Natomas needs is another flood of development – pun intended – while the levees are not yet finished. So when the building moratorium lifts this summer, the go-slow approach outlined by city planners makes a lot of sense.

Under the proposal headed to the City Council next week and up for a vote March 31, first dibs would go to a half-dozen homeowners who have been waiting to repair fire damage, and others who had to halt remodeling projects. They would not be counted against a cap of 1,500 new residential units in the first year. That limit would rise to 2,000 the second year and 3,000 the third, but it’s unlikely the pent-up market demand will get close to those numbers.

There would be no cap on building permits for new office, industrial and retail projects that meet zoning and floodplain rules. One immediate beneficiary is Sacramento International Airport, where construction on a 135-room hotel is slated to start in the fall. When the hotel opens in 2017, the airport will get 5 percent of revenues, eventually a projected $500,000 a year. The airport needs any cash it can find to help pay its crushing debt.

We tend to agree with city staff that the plan strikes the right balance between boosting economic development and controlling the risk of property damage and loss of life on the other.

The basin north of downtown is home to more than 40,000 housing units and 100,000 people – one-fifth of the city’s entire population – as well as 30,000 jobs. Rooftops multiplied like rabbits during the housing boom – until the building moratorium hit in December 2008 because federal officials determined that the levees ringing Natomas weren’t up to par.

There’s plenty of room for growth – some 10,300 single-family homes and 4,200 multifamily units. Nearly 3,700 finished housing lots are sitting vacant in North Natomas. But much has changed since 2008. The real estate bubble burst, so developers and banks are more wary of building subdivisions on spec. Infill projects within existing neighborhoods are more popular. With the new arena under construction, there’s more interest in residential growth downtown.

Whatever happens in Natomas next must reflect this new reality.

While the city is preparing to accept building permit applications as soon as April 1, officials are rightly cautioning that completing the levee project is going to take at least several more years.

Local residents and the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency did their part, completing $410 million in upgrades along 18 miles of levees. It was a milestone when President Barack Obama signed the authorization last June for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish the remaining 24 miles. But Congress still must pass annual appropriations totaling $600 million or more.

The chances are slim of a massive flood that would overwhelm the levees before the work is complete. But there’s no reason to tempt Mother Nature by rushing into another building boom.

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