When voters approved the incorporation of Elk Grove in Sacramento County in early 2000, the town had a population of about 54,000. Today, Elk Grove's population is heading past 140,000, and the city is looking at a 13,900-acre area for potential expansion.

In late October, the Elk Grove City Council directed its staff to move forward with a sphere of influence expansion and future master planning effort. City officials hope to annex the area within three to four years.

"This process is about building the long-term vision of Elk Grove," Councilman Gary Davis said. "We have the opportunity, I believe, to grab hold of our future."

Elk Grove's population has increased dramatically because of both rapid building and the city's annexation of Laguna West, a highly touted new urbanist community just east of Interstate 5. Considering this recent history and other factors, it is no surprise that Elk Grove is looking to grow into the pastures and open space that lie to the south and east of the current city limits. The city was a reluctant participant in the Sacramento Area Council of Government's regional blueprint process that sought to reign in sprawl. Voters in the 7-year-old city have consistently elected pro-development candidates, and slow-growth organizations seem to have had trouble gaining traction, despite extensive farmland conversion and increasing traffic congestion.

The city currently has no sphere of influence beyond the city limits. The proposed sphere expansion "comes straight from the general plan," explained Taro Echiburu, the city's environmental planning manager. The plan identifies two areas for potential urbanization within the sphere study area.

"The city's basic goal is to have a sustainable community that has a good amount of balance — housing, retail, employment, agricultural protection, open space," Echiburu said.

Earlier this year, Sacramento County officials questioned Elk Grove's rush to expand. But the most recent communication between the two governments was friendly, as Elk Grove ensured the county it would be involved while the city studies where to draw lines for the sphere of influence and urban growth areas.

A bigger obstacle than local politics might be environmental considerations. Elk Grove and all of the surrounding area lies within the boundaries of the South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), which has been in the works for nearly a decade. Some of the most important habitat lies along the Cosumnes River corridor, a portion of which falls within the city's sphere study area. The Sacramento Valley Conservancy has identified the Cosumnes River corridor, including all of the Elk Grove side of the waterway, as an "essential countywide open space resource area." In this fashion, the corridor could provide not only habitat, but a permanent greenbelt between the cities of Elk Grove and Galt.

In addition, the Elk Grove sphere of influence study area stretches right to the Cosumnes River's 100-year floodplain. Under recently signed state law, Central Valley development will need 200-year flood protection, or a plan to achieve such protection, as of 2015.

Although he conceded "the HCP does not contemplate what the city wants to do," Echiburu said there is no reason the city's southward expansion has to conflict with the HCP. The city is a participant in the HCP process and has no intention of seeing development cover the entire 22-square-mile study area.

"Certainly a large amount of that would be left in open space," Echiburu said. "We are looking at 7,500 acres for potential urbanization."

So far, environmentalists have remained in the background. Indeed, at a recent City Council meeting, nearly all public comment came from people complaining that their land was not included in the city's sphere study area.

The process approved by the City Council includes a detailed public participation plan for both determining the sphere of influence and for the subsequent master planning effort. Under the approved process, the city will not designate new land uses within the proposed sphere area. Instead, it will define a preferred sphere of influence. Once that sphere has been approved by the Sacramento County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the city intends to undertake a two- to three-year master planning process for the area, Echiburu said.

Peter Brundage, Sacramento LAFCO executive officer, noted that there would appear to be a tension between the HCP and Elk Grove's expansion designs. But Brundage declined to speculate on where things might head. "They've never talked to me and I've never seen anything from them," Brundage said.

The city expects to file a sphere of influence expansion application at LAFCO within nine months, Echiburu said.

Taro Echiburu, City of Elk Grove, (916) 478-2257.
Peter Brundage, Sacramento County Local Agency Formation Commission, (916) 874-6458.
South Sacramento Habitat Conservation Plan: http://www.planning.saccounty.net/habitat-conservation/overview.html