Sacramento County may not rank among California's great wine countries, but it does appreciate the value of aging. Eight years in the making, the land use element of the county's new general plan update is on the verge of approval by the county Board of Supervisors. In contrast with the contentiousness that has surrounded many other recently updated county general plans, this one—save some concerns about the protection of wild habitats—seems to be pleasing just about everyone. 

The plan still holds the theoretical potential to expand the "Urban Policy Area" by up to 20,000 acres. However, in order to direct development towards what county planners explicitly refer to as a "smart growth" pattern, the county has established a novel set of benchmarks that proposed development must meet before they can even think about treading beyond the established Urban Policy Area. 

"They have fashioned a really innovative kind of approach that I'm not sure anyone else has done exactly the same way," said Mike McKeever, executive director of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. County Supervisor Phil Serna called it a "paradigm shift for how the county is going to consider growth in the future." 

Critics of the growth management strategy contend that there will be political pressure to not follow through with the plan's density goals, which could then open up greenfields to development more quickly than planners anticipate.

"Our big concern is, that despite strong criteria, the actual implementation of projects will involve a never-ending series of concessions and relaxations and decisions that will end up with the kind of development that we have historically seen at the edge of the urban area, which is primarily single-family residential, transportation systems that are inadequate, and more of the same kind of sprawl that we've been getting for the last 15-20 years," said Ron Burness, a member of the Executive Board of the Environmental Council of Sacramento.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors tentatively approved, by a unanimous vote, the plan's growth management strategy and will soon consider the land use element. Final votes on both are expected by the end of the year. Supervisors say they have supported the plan because it responds to a host of environmental and economic concerns. 

Though disputes and discussions have drawn out the planning process to an absurd duration, stakeholders say that its glacial pace may have averted a planning catastrophe. Had the plan been based on conditions before the real estate market crash, the results could have been disastrous.

"When we started out, demand was a lot higher," said Storelli. "As the market tanked, we realized that we needed to scale [our projections] back because demand wasn't that high. Our board of supervisors still wanted an opportunity to consider new growth areas so we had to come up with some criteria that weren't based off supply and demand."

Torrid growth swept over the region in the beginning and middle of the last decade, pushing development into greenfields and creating what critics consider to be economically inefficient and environmentally unfriendly low-density communities. Planners say a general plan update based on these premises would have been useless for a host of changes that have taken place since 2008, most notably the near-death of new development that corresponded with the recession and mortgage crisis. 

Contemplating a relatively slow-growth future, county planners turned to a more conservative but flexible scenario that, they say, is designed to limit growth at the urban fringes and encourage development within existing unincorporated communities. A significant portion of Sacramento County's population—roughly 550,000 out of 1.4 million county residents—lives in the county's 23 unincorporated areas. County planners say that SACOG estimates that demand could be for anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 new housing units by 2030. 

Attempts to control where and how development occurs have enjoyed mixed success in the past. The county established a pair of planning tools in 1993 meant to limit the growth of urbanized areas. The Urban Policy Area defines territory where the county provides services and allows growth; it could be expanded to accommodate projected growth for a 25-year period. The Urban Services Boundary, however, is a rigid boundary extending beyond the UPA designed to mark the absolute extent of all future development in the county. Environmentalists and other critics have lamented that in the boom years of the 2000s, the UPA was expanded almost at whim by the Board of Supervisors. 

The new land use element attempts to remove political whims from the shaping of the county's growth. Yet, many stakeholders, including environmental groups, are unnerved by the fact that the element still allows for the potential expansion of the UPA by 20,000 acres. However, planners caution that what the plan allows for, and what will actually take place on the ground, are likely to be two vastly different things. 

"It doesn't actually open up anything," said Storelli. "If you (developers) meet these very stringent criteria you can initiate an application that would expand the USB and only then would the land open." 

For the board to consider extending the UPA or approving a master plan beyond UPA boundaries, developments must meet some combination of the following criteria as outlined in the draft growth management plan: 

A "Justification Statement" that shall be a comprehensive explanation of the proposed request and the development it would allow.  It must include background information, reasoning, and the goal(s) and benefits of the proposed project.

"Significant borders" that are adjacent to the existing UPA or a city boundary.  As a guideline, "significant borders" generally means that the length of the boundary between the existing UPA or city boundary and the proposed UPA expansion/Master Plan should be 25 percent of the length of the boundary of the UPA expansion area. 

A vision of how the development will connect to other adjacent existing and potential future development areas within the USB, including how roadways, transit, sewer, and water could occur within all adjacent areas. 

A variety of housing types and densities, including single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, accessory dwelling units, townhomes, condominiums, apartments and similar multi-family units, in a variety of settings including both residential neighborhoods and mixed use nodes. 

Design guidelines, development standards and/or similar assurances that will require high-quality development consistent with the vision set forth in the Master Plan. 

These criteria are meant to guide growth to infill areas, with particular attention to older commercial strips that, planners say, are ripe for redevelopment. The plan text includes the goal of "enhancing quality of life in every community, as well as utilizing vacant and underutilized lands to accommodate future economic and population growth." This will take different forms in maturing suburban places such as Arden-Arcade, which is nearly fully built-out, as opposed to more rural communities that are expected to experience significant growth. 

"It's a more thoughtful approach than just looking at projected housing and jobs and treating it in a sterile, quantitative fashion only," said Serna. "We're trying to address growth in the context of what is that future growth going to mean not just in terms of its land uses but what is it going to be in terms of its connection between land use, transportation, and air quality."

As long as that list of criteria may be, its certainty and flexibility may actually be appealing to developers who are desperate for some kind of predictability. 

"Previously they were looking at more of a supply-and-demand model, and those numbers can swing from very high to very low, which is what the county has experienced over the eight-year cycle of developing their general plan," said John Costa, Senior Legislative Advocate of the North State Building Industry Association. "This provides a better framework for projects moving forward in the planning process and have a better idea of what they are developing for."

While developers may need some time to wrap their minds around this new approach to development, one group that welcomes the county's approach wholeheartedly is the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. SACOG is responsible for preparing the region's Sustainable Communities Strategy as mandated by Senate Bill 375, the 2008 law requiring major metro regions to reduce per capita greenhouse gas emissions by better integrating land use and sustainable transportation policies. Though SACOG's SCS is only in the early planning stages, SACOG and the county planning department collaborated to ensure that the general plan update—and the projects that result—would reflect the same goals and values as the SCS. 

"They may end up entitling some projects that meet their smart growth criteria that have more market capacity than will fit inside our SCS in any given planning cycle, but that's fine," said McKeever. "

This collaboration represents a new approach to the interplay between local and regional planning. Defanti noted that the economic climate was not the only thing that changed in the last eight years. 

"Throughout this process, the economy has violently fluctuated on us and that the regulatory environment has fluctuated as well," said Defanti. "Central to that has been SB 375."

Serna echoed that sentiment, saying "it is a new day and we do have a responsibility to respond to a different regulatory and different legislative environment." 

That regulatory change has, according to McKeever, made metropolitan planning organizations, such as SACOG, even more relevant to local planning efforts. 

"The actions of MPOs are now front-and-center, so even though it's a little bumpy in some regions, everyone is looking in much more detail at how these regional plans are built," said McKeever.

Area developers remain anxious about what form infill development will actually take in a county that has historically embraced single-family, low-density development. 

"The difficulty that we've seen through the process is that the [target] density levels are higher than we're used to in this area," said Costa. "Some members have concerns about whether that's viable to build."

Burness pointed to three developments already in the planning stages that would extend the urban fringe, as well as potential annexations by cities including Folsom and Sacramento. 

"All of these efforts on the part of landowners by and large (have pushed) at the edges of the urban area," said Burness. 

Costa rejects the contention that the new plan would foreshadow rapid suburban growth. 

"You may see projects in the planning stages, but we don't believe that the county is going to open up this area to growth anytime soon," said Costa. He added that many BIA members focus on infill and not just on greenfield development. 

As well, county planners contend that the growth management strategy has built-in disincentives to greenfield development. 

"Any new development that would be coming forward would have to show how it pays for itself, and hopefully would be a net benefit to the county," said Defanti. 


Contacts & Resources: 


Rob Burness, Executive Board, Environmental Council of Sacramento, 916.444.0022


John Costa, Senior Legislative Advocate, North State Building Industry Association: 916.751.2753


Dave Defanti, Senior Planner; Cindy Storelli, Principal Planner; Planning Division, County of Sacramento, 916.874.6141


Mike McKeever, Executive Director, Sacramento Area Council of Governments, 916.321.9000


Phil Serna, Supervisor, County of Sacramento, 916.874.5485