Cordova Hills, SB 375, and the Inertia of Sprawl

Earlier this week, Sacramento County approved the controversial Cordova Hills project, a sprawling and far-flung subdivision outside the region’s urban footprint.  Cordova Hills flies in the face of the Sacramento Region’s 2012 Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS), hailed by ClimatePlan and others as a model for SB 375 implementation. The debate over this project offers an interesting case study for SB 375’s impact on local land use decisions.

Cordova Hills is located in southeastern Sacramento County.  The 2,700 acre project would build up to 8,700 housing units and 1 million square feet of office and commercial space on what is currently grassland and vernal pools.  It is not a new proposal; project studies have been underway for several years.  However, SACOG’s  regional transportation plan and SCS, adopted in April 2012, did not include the proposed development.

Because the project is so large and remote from job centers, it will generate a substantial amount of new VMT that was not accounted for in the SCS/RTP.  At a packed hearing in December 2012, members of the public and several of the County supervisors raised this issue.  What impact would Cordova Hills have on the region’s ability to meet its GHG targets?  And what impact would that, in turn, have on the region’s transportation funding?

Due in part to these questions, the County postponed approval of the plan and asked SACOG to conduct an analysis and report back about the potential impacts of Cordova Hills.  That report showed that the project could potentially undermine SACOG’s ability to meet the 2035 GHG target, which in turn, could jeopardize the region’s transportation funding.  Advocates rallied behind these findings, as did the Sacramento Bee who published both an editorial and an op-ed by County Supervisor Phil Serna saying that the impacts to regional VMT and the GHG targets were reason enough for the County to reject Cordova Hills.

On January 29th, SACOG Executive Director Mike McKeever presented these findings at a hearing before the Board of Supervisors, including two members that serve on SACOG’s Board and approved the SCS.  During a pointed and lengthy exchange, several members of the Board challenged SACOG’s findings, particularly around the transportation funding.  McKeever politely but firmly stood his ground, and spoke at length about SB 375’s indirect but far-reaching impact on how the region competes for increasingly scarce federal and state transportation dollars.

Despite the SACOG report and hours of testimony from community members and advocates, the Board voted 4-1 to approve the project.  This was not an unexpected outcome, given the history and politics of Sacramento County and the momentum of this project.  Despite the 2008 meltdown, despite the foreclosure crisis, despite everything we know about changing demographics and housing preferences, and yes, despite SB 375, there is an inertia about sprawl that continues to persist.

It nonetheless came as a disappointment to anti-sprawl warriors who hope that SB 375 will provide new leverage to stop these projects.  It speaks to the limitations of SB 375 to directly impact local land use decisions.  While SB 375 provides some direct incentives to encourage growth in the right places, it relies on softer tools – such as building regional consensus around Transit Priority Areas and shifting transportation dollars toward those places –  to discourage growth in the wrong places.

Despite its size and visibility, Cordova Hills is still just one project.  So it would be premature to draw too many conclusions about SB 375 and its impact on local land use decisions.  However, it does point to the need for careful monitoring of SCSes to see whether their lofty promises are being implemented on the ground.  It also reminds us that the deck is still stacked in favor of sprawl, thanks to everything from global capital markets to Prop 13’s fiscalization of land use.  SB 375 has given us an important tool to shift our communities toward sustainability, but there is more work to be done.

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