Sutter County is once again pursing a major development near the Sacramento International Airport. A specific plan the county adopted earlier this year calls for a 3,500-acre industrial and commercial development that would be a job center for the region.
Sutter County officials hope they can entice businesses to the South Sutter County Specific Plan area with relatively low real estate prices, an accommodating infrastructure financing plan, and a system that requires no more than design review for permitted industrial projects.
"We want to make it easy for builders to come — where all they have to do is go get a building permit," said Sutter County Supervisor Casey Kroon.
Environmentalists, however, argue that the specific plan opens flood-prone farmland to major industrial development while postponing many infrastructure requirements. The environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Environmental Council of Sacramento, have filed a lawsuit contending that the county violated the California Environmental Quality Act and other state laws.
"This project is a throwback to the way they used to do it before there were laws," charged James Pachl, an attorney for environmentalists.
Environmentalists are not they one ones concerned with Sutter County's accommodating approach to industrial development. The state Department of Fish and Game has complained that the county postponed a study of biological resources — a study the agency says the specific plan's environmental impact report should have contained. And both Reclamation District 1000, which provides water and flood control in the area, and the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board have expressed concerns about the lack of public infrastructure requirements.
Lying north of Sacramento, Sutter County has a mostly agricultural economy. Most of the Sacramento region's economic growth of recent years has been east of the state capital toward Roseville and Folsom — not north toward Sutter and Yuba counties. Thus, Sutter County remains one of the poorer in the state, with an unemployment rate that has not ranked better than seventh worst of California's 58 counties in any year since 1990, according to the state Employment Development Department.
During the 1990s, south Sutter County was a battle-zone for development proposals. In 1991, county voters rejected competing growth initiatives. Voters' apparent willingness to let the Board of Supervisors decide led to the county's approval of a 36-square-mile, 200,000-resident new town proposal called Sutter Bay. But in January 1993, the Board of Supervisors — with three members, including Kroon, participating in their first meeting ever — rescinded 18 development agreements with Ahmanson Development Company and its Bay Area-based partners. That decision preceded a referendum on the project, which voters defeated by a nearly two-to-one ratio. The county then spent years defending developers' lawsuits, but the county prevailed. (See CP&DR Legal Digest, December 1997 and June 1995; CP&DR February 1993, December 1992, June 1991.)
While it was defending the lawsuits, the county updated its general plan. As part of the update, the county designated a 10,500-acre "industrial/commercial reserve" that it sees as a 100-year plan, Planning Director Tom Last explained. After meeting with area property owners, the county in April adopted the South Sutter Specific Plan for 3,500 acres on the border with Sacramento County and within the industrial/commercial reserve.
"There has always been pressure for development down there," Last said. "There is proximity to the airport, all the growth in Placer County and Sacramento County, the possibility of rail."
The specific plan attempts to capitalize on the site's proximity to Highway 99, Interstate 5, the airport and rail lines. The plan permits many manufacturing operations, distribution centers and warehouses, truck terminals, bulk storage yards, and a variety of wholesale businesses. Retail is not a high priority for the specific plan area, as the county allocated only 100 acres, including a number of small parcels expected to serve neighboring industrial uses, for retail development. But the lawsuit filed by environmentalists has put the specific plan on hold.
Attorney Pachl said the county delayed the infrastructure financing plan until after the public comment period on the EIR closed. And, he said, the infrastructure plan allows development to proceed before sewer, water and storm drainage facilities are in place.
Environmentalists and some agency representatives complain that nothing in the specific plan ever requires the regional facilities to be built. And flooding is always a concern in the area; about half of the specific plan territory lies within the 100-year floodplain.
The county's plan does let developers rely on on-site wells and drainage, and "package" sewer plants. But those facilities can do the job and they would be in use only until enough money is available to pursue regional facilities, said county officials. At this point, the county cannot even finance the infrastructure because it has nothing with which to leverage the debt, Last said.
"We don't have," added Supervisor Kroon, "a lot of money to put into infrastructure ahead of time and then hope that someone shows up."
For DFG, the issue is animal and plant habitat. The Natomas Habitat Conservation Plan covers the area, but a federal judge threw out the HCP in 2000. The City of Sacramento, Sutter County and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service only recently released a revised HCP. For its EIR on the specific plan, Sutter County deferred biological issues to the HCP effort— a strategy that did not satisfy DFG.
"[T]he county may not defer analysis and disclosure of project-related impacts under the guise that an ongoing and yet-to-be completed planning effort pursuant to the State and federal Endangered Species Act will address all impacts on biological resources," DFG staff counsel John Mattox wrote to the county before adoption of the EIR.
The agency is not necessarily opposed to the specific plan, and DFG is not a party to the lawsuit, Mattox added. In fact, the county has melded its planning to regional resource needs, he said. But the agency was not happy with the EIR, and Mattox made clear that the dissatisfaction could be problem for the county when it seeks DFG permits for work in the specific plan area.
To Sutter County, though, the questions and opposition sound like sour grapes from outsiders. Because there is no residential component to the specific plan, there has been minimal local controversy. Kroon even suggested that developers of competing business parks in the region are responsible for stirring the pot.
Casey Kroon, Sutter County supervisor, (530) 822-7106
Tom Last, Sutter County Planning Division, (530) 822-7400.
John Mattox, Department of Fish and Game, (916) 654-3821.
James Pachl, attorney for environmentalists, (916) 446-3978.
South Sutter County Specific Plan website: www.co.sutter.ca.us/community_services/planning/specific_plan.htm
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