Despite high gasoline prices, concern over greenhouse gas emissions, a dismal housing market and a renowned "smart growth" regional planning blueprint, a whole new phase of exurbs is being planned north of Sacramento.

From the far-reaches of Yolo, Sutter and Yuba counties to rice-growing Colusa County, landowners, developers and planners are working on planning and entitlements for projects that could bring tens of thousands of new housing units to rural communities and greenfield sites located 30, 40 and even 50 miles from existing employment centers. Whether and when the projects actually get developed are open questions, as everyone involved is talking about the long-term.

Some of the most ambitious proposals lie along the lightly developed Interstate 5 corridor. As part of a comprehensive general plan update, Yolo County is considering designating Dunnigan – a community of about 800 people 20 miles northeast of Woodland – as a 2,000-acre growth area for 7,500 housing units. Only about two miles north in Colusa County, developer Pacific Cascade is proposing 6,600 units on 2,600 acres. Both the Dunnigan and the Colusa County projects could also include extensive industrial, commercial and retail development.

Elsewhere, the cities of Williams, Colusa and Live Oak have made clear their interest in growth. And projects with the potential for more than 10,000 housing units are pending in unincorporated Yuba County. All of this comes in a region where housing construction has slowed to its lowest level in many years. In the Marysville-Yuba City region, for example, housing starts this year are down 94% compared with the boom year of 2005, according to the California Building Industry Association. Starts are down 75% over the same three-year period in the Sacramento-Roseville area.

"Developers realize the market is going to come back someday," said Denis Cook, a planning consultant to developers and the interim, part-time planning director for Live Oak.

Virtually all of this potential growth is incompatible with the Sacramento Council of Government's regional growth blueprint. (Colusa County lies outside of SACOG's boundaries.) The blueprint calls for infill and higher densities before new growth areas open up. The blueprint, for example, envisions a new town in Dunnigan — but not until after 2050. Yolo County envisions build-out by 2030.

Developers have been eyeing Colusa County for several years because of its I-5 frontage and because Yolo County, which lies between Colusa County and Sacramento, has permitted little growth in unincorporated areas. Pacific Cascade is the latest to pitch development just north of the Yolo-Colusa county line.

However, before county staff members spend much time on Pacific Cascade's application, county Planning Director Stephen Hackney intends to ask the Board of Supervisors whether it even wants to consider the concept of large-scale growth on farmland. The county has long directed growth into the cities of Colusa and Williams while protecting unincorporated areas for agriculture, he explained.

The Pacific Cascade proposal, he said, "is not only inconsistent with the general plan land use designation in the land use element, but it is inconsistent with the goals and policies in most of the other elements."

The application is scheduled to go to the Board of Supervisors this month. "The board in essence could make a policy decision. The board can give me and the world clear direction," Hackney said.

In Yolo County, officials this month are scheduled to release a draft general plan that designates several unincorporated areas for a total of 9,000 to 11,000 new housing units, according to Assistant Planning Director David Morrison. Up to 7,500 of those units would be in Dunnigan, a farm town at the junction of I-5 and I-505 and about 35 miles northwest of Sacramento. Such growth would be a marked change for farm-friendly Yolo County, but the county government needs to diversify its tax base to survive fiscally, Morrison said. The county selected Dunnigan for development because it is a poor community that could benefit from new services and amenities, Morrison said. In addition, most of the territory in question is not good agricultural land, and the I-5/I-505 junction is reportedly the least developed interchange of two interstate freeways in California, he said.

Despite the recent housing market slowdown, Morrison said, "There is always going to be a strong demand for residential development in Yolo County, situated as we are between Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area region."

The trick, said Morrison, is ensuring that Dunnigan becomes a complete community, not simply a bedroom for Sacramento. The draft general plan contains policies to ensure that commercial development occurs concurrently with housing development, he said.

"It always boils down to the political will to carry out the plan. We've always had that will, and the voters expect it," Morrison said.

Indeed, large housing developments without jobs and services is a common concern, Cook acknowledged. "All of these communities want to have the jobs-housing balance that everybody desires. None of them wants to become commuter towns," he said. "But the way the market works, you've got to get the rooftops first."

Cook cited Roseville as an example of a city that added thousands of houses during the 1980s before jobs started showing up during the 1990s.

This jobs-housing balance has been of special concern in Yuba County, which has little employment to offer outside of Beale Air Force Base. Among the projects being discussed in Yuba County are a 3,500-unit subdivision in Spring Valley about 10 miles east of Marysville for which voters approved a development agreement 10 years ago, and a re-worked Yuba Highlands project, which was approved for 5,100 units before developer Gary Gallelli pulled out and voters defeated the project in a referendum earlier this year (see CP&DR, March 2008, June 2007). Neither of those projects has been approved. On hold in Yuba County is Reynen & Bardis Community's 6,250-unit Woodbury project between Marysville and Wheatland.

Farther out is the northern Sutter County city of Live Oak, which recently adopted a growth-friendly general plan, and the City of Colusa, whose new general plan would permit the population to more than triple to about 20,000 by 2030. A city of about 8,500 people, Live Oak began growing a few years ago after completing a wastewater treatment plant upgrade.

Wastewater treatment has stalled growth in Williams, whose population has grown 44% to about 5,300 this decade while the city emerged as a bedroom for commuters to Sacramento and the Vacaville-Fairfield area. City officials favor more development, but a state order has halted growth until the city upgrades its wastewater treatment facilities.

David Morrison, Yolo County Planning and Public Works Department, (530) 666-8775.
Stephen Hackney, Colusa County Planning Department, (530) 458-0480.
Denis Cook, planning consultant, (530) 751-9614.