It took decades, but there’s finally a plan for open land in south Sacramento County

Dale Jones of Galt helps his son Daniel plant acorns at a habitat restoration project south of Sacramento.
Dale Jones of Galt helps his son Daniel plant acorns at a habitat restoration project south of Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

To say the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan has been a long time coming is a vast understatement.

Two decades after the seeds were first planted, the plan is finally ready for Sacramento County supervisors to consider on Wednesday. They should approve it.

Developers would get a simplified and predictable process for federal and state environmental permits. And conservation groups would get large, interconnected areas of protected habitat, open space and undeveloped farmland.

Years of push and pull among groups representing developers, farmers, environmental and conservation interests, plus state and federal agencies, has produced a fair deal that most can support. While the success of this very complex framework depends on implementation and enforcement, that by itself is something of a miracle.

So, yes, supervisors should do their due diligence and listen to all sides. But they should be careful not to tear down a carefully constructed compromise, or delay a vote too long.

Without this plan, environmental approvals will continue to happen project by project – a time-consuming and expensive process. Conservation land will continue to be piecemeal. And many of these projects could end up in court.

A well thought-out habitat preservation process in south Sacramento County is better for everyone. The 50-year plan covers 317,656 acres, including unincorporated areas, Galt and the southern half of Rancho Cordova. It covers 28 species of animals and plants, including 11 on state or federal lists as threatened or endangered.

It will result in 36,282 acres preserved for perpetuity, mostly in rural areas. Inside urban development areas, preservation will mostly be limited to vernal pools and streams.

Over the 50 years, about $767 million – an average of $15.4 million – will go to land purchases, management and other costs. The money will come from fees on private development and public infrastructure, plus the value of donated land.

One major project that would get a more streamlined path is the proposed Capitol SouthEast Connector, a major highway through undeveloped land between Folsom and Elk Grove that would be an alternative commuting route to Highways 50 and 99.

Since the habitat plan effort picked up again in 2016, there have been more than 75 meetings, including 20 public workshops last summer. County planners responded to the concerns. For instance, preservation land can only be acquired from willing sellers, not through condemnation or eminent domain.

However, some farm groups are still opposed, worried about long-term restrictions on very valuable cropland being used as vineyards and orchards. There should be a way to address these concerns without tearing up the plan.

The county Planning Commission recommended it by a 4-1 vote in April. Various citizen panels have also signed off.

There is a hole in the plan, however: The city of Elk Grove withdrew in 2014 after it was denied permission to expand its urban boundary to the south. That’s unfortunate, and became more so in February, when Elk Grove won approval for a smaller expansion. Conservation groups have gone to court to stop it.

Avoiding that kind of litigation is one significant benefit of the Habitat Conservation Plan, but far from the only one. After all these years, it’s time to move forward.