What is a LAFCO? Until this week, many local residents would have been hard-pressed to answer this question. Yet on Wednesday, a majority of the appointees to the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission demonstrated why it is important for counties to have strong and principled LAFCOs. By a 5-2 vote, this commission rejected Elk Grove’s bid to expand its planning area to the south by 8,000 acres.
The significance of this decision cannot be overstated. Land speculators for years have pressured Elk Grove to expand its borders to the south. That push has continued even after the housing bust, which has left Elk Grove saddled with an unfinished mall and a glut of unoccupied houses and underused land holdings within its current borders.
Supporters tried to make the argument that expansion would help bring jobs to Elk Grove, reducing the city’s jobs-housing imbalance. Yet most LAFCO commissioners were not swayed by this bogus claim. Residential builders have been the driving force behind Elk Grove expansion for years, relentlessly pushing to spread more subdivisions and ranchettes into prime farmland and the sensitive watershed of the Cosumnes River.
Kudos go to five LAFCO commissioners – Vice Chairman Mike Singleton, Kevin McCarty, Christopher Tooker, Ron Greenwood and Gay Jones – who saw through this ruse.
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Less complimentary words go to LAFCO Chairman Jimmie Yee and Susan Peters, two Sacramento County supervisors who voted against a motion to reject expansion and were on the losing end of a staff proposal to expand the planning area by 4,000 acres. Both, it should be noted, were also supporters of the leapfrog Cordova Hills project, which has given Sacramento County unwanted notoriety for poor planning decisions.
Why did these supervisors vote this way? One answer is the influence of County Executive Brad Hudson, who wrote a little-noticed letter in support of expanding Elk Grove sphere of influence on May 21, despite the potential impacts to county services and roads.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Yee clearly bought into the idea that Elk Grove could grow jobs only by grabbing more land. For her part, Peters talked about “self determination” for Elk Grove.
That’s an interesting position. If Peters thinks that cities should do whatever they want in annexing new territory, why should LAFCOs even exist? Fortunately, most on the board have a better appreciation of these agencies and their essential role.
LAFCOs are products of a law signed by Gov. Pat Brown, the current governor’s father, back in 1963. They were a response to cities sprawling into prime agricultural areas. As the Sacramento LAFCO says on its website, “Premature and unplanned development created inefficient, expensive systems of delivering public services using various small units of local government.”
To ensure that various jurisdictions were represented in land-use decisions, LAFCOs were created “to oversee boundary changes of cities and special districts, the formation of new agencies, including the incorporation of new cities and districts, and the consolidation or reorganization of special districts and or cities.”
Sadly, Sacramento’s LAFCO has too often shied away from controversy, refusing to consolidate mismanaged and wasteful special districts, such as the Rio Linda water district. Wednesday’s vote, however, showed true courage, especially since several commissioners have political aspirations. They will likely face the wrath of land speculators, who are big campaign contributors, having accumulated their wealth converting cheap farmland into subdivisions.
What’s needed now is for Sacramento County and other jurisdictions to put the brakes on further piecemeal development, and finish a South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan. Certainty is needed about which areas of the south county should remain farmland and wildlife habitat. Once that is settled, it will be easier to determine which areas are appropriate for future urban growth.
LAFCO’s rejection of Elk Grove’s expansion wouldn’t have happened without a strong turnout by concerned Elk Grove and Wilton residents, farm preservationists and environmentalists. They need to build on that momentum by working to elect a Sacramento County Board of Supervisors and Elk Grove City Council that are less beholden to real estate interests and more beholden to public interests.