Sacramento supervisors are addicted to sprawl. It could cost our region dearly | Opinion

The Sacramento region could lose about $1 billion in state transportation funds in the coming years if it fails to develop a housing/transportation plan that reduces sprawl and increases housing within communities. Yet Sacramento County does not seem to care as it reflexively pushes for more sprawl.

The housing and transportation planner for the six-county region, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), is advancing an overall housing strategy that calls for two-thirds of future growth to occur within existing communities. That means that only a third of new housing would happen on undeveloped land beyond those existing communities.

If we don’t start building more inward and less outward, this region will run into real trouble when it comes to revitalizing our communities and reducing commutes and emissions. It is that simple.


Defying this reality, Sacramento County Planning Director Todd Smith is asking for the regional planner to expect 50% less growth within established communities than SACOG is suggesting.

As for new greenfield developments — a.k.a. sprawl — the county is recommending to increase this growth target by 333% from SACOG’s initial proposal for “potential developing communities.” Most if not all are fringe communities that don’t even yet exist.

Meanwhile for the city of Sacramento, SACOG is suggesting about double the new housing for established communities than SACOG suggests for the unincorporated county (14,210 in new dwellings for the city as opposed to the disputed target of 7,800 for the unincorporated areas). The city fully embraces this target, a polar opposite reaction than the county. City Senior Planner Remi Mendoza said SACOG’s targets for Sacramento are fully in line with the city’s own plans.

The stark contrast in the attitudes of Smith and Mendoza, who work mere blocks from one another, is very revealing. When it comes to growth, the desire to sprawl or to grow inward is being driven by the politics of the local elected officials that the planners represent. Mendoza and the city of Sacramento get what we need to do.

Sacramento County is “caught in a paradigm they can’t get out of,” said Michael McKeever, a former executive director of SACOG who pioneered a planning effort known as the “Blueprint” to build in a more climate-friendly fashion.

“They can’t face that their whole growth strategy is essentially failing,” McKeever said. “Because of the politics, they’re inclined to make a few developers happy than biting the bullet to make the infill work.”

Regions like Sacramento that fail to develop transportation and housing plans to sufficiently reduce per-capita emissions will be disqualified from key subsidy programs that this region now takes for granted —but should not going forward given Sacramento County’s worrisome behavior. A state legislator in 2008 championed this law incentivize smarter growth. His name - Darrell Steinberg, now Sacramento’s mayor heading into his final year in office.

The A.J., the first infill housing development in The Railyards development north of downtown Sacramento, was completed earlier this year. Xavier Mascareñas/Sacramento Bee file
The A.J., the first infill housing development in The Railyards development north of downtown Sacramento, was completed earlier this year. Xavier Mascareñas/Sacramento Bee file

SACOG has to adopt a so-called Sustainable Communities Strategy by 2025 that provides a housing mix that will reduce per-capita emissions by 19% by 2035 compared to a 2005 baseline. It will also adopt a companion Metropolitan Transportation Plan that identifies the necessary road, transit and bike improvements to complement the housing strategy. Marrying the right housing mix and the right transportation investments is the only way to make the kind of revolutionary change that Steinberg’s legislation, and climate change, is demanding.

Within a year, SACOG Executive Director James Corless hopes the SACOG’s Board of Directors will approve a 2035 housing commitment from each jurisdiction that will produce the necessary lowering of per-capita emissions. As a first step, SACOG released to its members a “discussion scenario” in September that floated targets for both infill and greenfield growth.

On Oct. 17, Smith of Sacramento County pushed back. He instructed SACOG to radically change the suggested housing targets for the unincorporated county by decreasing the infill and increasing the sprawl.

“While the county strongly supports increasing infill development within its existing communities, particularly along commercial corridors, the estimates provided are very aggressive and unlikely to build out as proposed,” Smith wrote. The county’s major roadway corridors “have significant unfunded infrastructure constraints that must be addressed before major intensification efforts can occur.”

Instead, Smith is asking SACOG to decrease new housing target for established communities by 50% and for major corridors by 35%. Instead, Smith suggests this housing should be dedicated to the customary sprawl. He proposed increasing by 30% the housing for communities under construction and the target for “potential” communities that have yet to exist by 333%, or approximately 6,300 additional units.

Smith is personifying the county’s can’t-do attitude about growing inward. It is in a stunning and complete contrast to the city of Sacramento and its planner, Mendoza. SACOG is suggesting triple the overall infill development for the city than the unincorporated county, adding up units along key transit corridors as well as within existing communities. Yes, it is aspirational. But so is everything about adapting to climate change and abandoning decades of development patterns.

Of SACOG targets for Sacramento, “over 90% is infill development,” Mendoza said. “We anticipate that most of the growth is going to occur within our footprint, our existing footprint.”

Some county supervisors, however, seem to think otherwise.

Take, for example, Supervisor Phil Serna. He has a disproportionate number of greenfield development proposals in his district. On paper, he also represents the city of Sacramento that wants to focus on growth within its boundaries. In a recent statement to the Bee, Serna said that proposed developments beyond existing communities in the Natomas region “must be extraordinary when it comes to habitat protection, diversity of housing types and affordability, incorporation of needed services in Natomas, flood protection, transit connectivity, active transportation and minimizing vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions.”

These proposals by geography are not extraordinary from a planning perspective. They are inherently problematic. As evidence, SACOG is suggesting none in Natomas are needed to address population growth and climate change realities.

Sacramento County supervisors “have shot themselves in the foot,” McKeever said. “They have approved too many damn greenfields. What investor is going to invest in a greenfield when there is not enough market demand to build all the developments that have been approved?”

We have a region that needs to change how it grows. And we have our largest and most important player, Sacramento County, that appears incapable of facing reality. It is up to SACOG’s capable management and its board of elected officials to confront head-on what it is truly up against. Either make housing and transportation investments in the right places, or be prepared to lose transportation dollars to regions elsewhere in California who have their acts together.

Imagine half a million state dollars not coming to this region each and every day because Sacramento County leads the charge in refusing to grow in a smarter, more sustainable way. That is what we’re facing going forward. Failure to adapt is not a viable option.