Elk Grove’s proposal to expand its southern borders is continuing to spark controversy.
A new grassroots group called Elk Grove GRASP has formed to oppose the plan, which would add 8,000 acres beyond Kammerer and Grant Line roads to the city’s "sphere of influence"—a legal term meaning an area in which city government is likely to provide services and exercise control in the future.
Elk Grove’s application to expand is currently being considered by the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, which is reviewing public comments on a draft environmental impact report before making a decision later this year. (See the attached map of the proposed sphere of influence area.)
If successful, the city would still have to annex the land before approving development projects—a process that could take years.
But GRASP has denounced the city's plan for growth, calling it “vague” and “incomplete.” Group supporters argue the application is based on outdated economic data and ignores other available development options at the expense of wildlife habitat and farmland.
The group’s organizer, Elk Grove resident Lynn Wheat, said county approval of the expansion could lead to increased urban sprawl without addressing existing issues like infill development and blight.
Wheat said GRASP has added 200 members critical of the expansion, although social media suggests a more modest number. Since January, 25 people have joined GRASP’s Facebook page and the group has collected 39 online petition signatures asking LAFCo to deny Elk Grove’s application.
Wheat said the city’s application should concern all Elk Grove residents, especially those affected by the region’s economic slump.
“Do we need this expansion within the next 10 years?” said Wheat. “Is getting bigger going to be better for the residents?”
Disagreement over how to heal local economy
Wheat wondered why the city was expanding south into rural land when Elk Grove already had 8,000 undeveloped acres inside the city’s existing boundaries. She also pointed to foreclosure and unemployment rates as proof the city needs to recover economically before considering more growth.
Since January 2007, more than 16,000 homeowners have defaulted on their Elk Grove homes. The city’s December 2011 unemployment rate was 8.8 percent, lower than the county’s 10.9 percent rate.
Gary Davis, an Elk Grove city councilman, agreed that existing space should be developed before expansion occurs. But he argued that Elk Grove has a jobs-to-housing imbalance and the city needs to find new areas for commercial and industrial growth to boost employment.
Currently, there are 34,000 jobs in Elk Grove—a number Davis says is unsustainable for a city with 150,000 people. He wants 50,000 more jobs and thinks those numbers could come from future expansion in the city’s southern areas.
“What Elk Grove is doing is defining its future,” said Davis. “In order to do that, we know that we need to bring a significant number of jobs to Elk Grove.”
But opponents believe the city’s thirst for development will come at a significant price.
Charlotte Mitchell, executive director of the Sacramento County Farm Bureau, said adding the designated land to Elk Grove’s boundaries would devastate agricultural production in the area. Mitchell said she’s especially concerned about farms protected under the state’s landmark Williamson Act, which guarantees landowners a cheaper property tax rate if they promise to use the land for agricultural purposes.
“We want to ensure that agriculture land can be used for food production and that local jurisdictions will have thoughtful planning efforts,” said Mitchell. “In our opinion, the city of Elk Grove may not have demonstrated that to the extent that they should.”
If LAFCo approves the city’s application to expand, Mitchell is worried real estate prices might skyrocket for the 8,000 acres under consideration. If that happens, property owners might be tempted to cancel Williamson Act contracts and sell to developers.
Agricultural producers might also feel unsure about their place in the city’s future development plans and respond by scaling back farming operations, she said.
Uncertainty is the last thing a farmer wants, said Mitchell.
“It takes a period of time, usually a longer period of time, to recoup (capital investment) costs,” she said. “Therefore, you have to have the certainty that your operation will be in business down the road so those improvements can be repaid to that degree.”
Meanwhile, Elk Grove city planners believe critics of the proposal may be overstating the expansion’s impact.
Taro Echiburu, the city’s planning director, said the city can’t develop that land without annexing it first. As an example he pointed to Folsom’s planned annexation south of Highway 50, which LAFCo approved this month nearly 10 years after that city expanded its sphere of influence.
Echiburu believes the city is exercising enough caution over possible impacts to wildlife and agriculture in the area.
“Does [the sphere of influence] provide for an opportunity for future development? Yes, but not automatically,” said Echiburu. “There’s a whole process that needs to happen in between.”
If Elk Grove attempted to annex that land in the future, the city would have to submit a second application to LAFCo, which would be required by the California Environmental Quality Act to draft another environmental impact report before considering annexation.
Echiburu also addressed concerns that Elk Grove is overlooking potential development within existing city limits, especially in the city’s northeastern quadrant, where much of the land is designated for mixed-use residential and agricultural purposes. Both he and Davis said keeping the rural character of those areas meant finding other places to zone for commercial and industrial use.
“While you could use it…that would come at the price of eliminating the rural area of the city,” the planning director said. “That’s a conflict of the wishes and desires of the community.”
County currently controls planning
For now, adding new acreage to Elk Grove’s sphere of influence would only mean the city would coordinate more closely with county officials on future development plans, giving planners a better idea of how to prepare for the future.
Even if LAFCo doesn’t approve the city’s request for more say over the area, development can still occur.
The county already has jurisdiction over that area and has repeatedly exercised its authority to develop unincorporated areas, said Echiburu. As an example, he pointed to four solar farms that have been built or proposed by the Sacramento County Planning Commission in the area of Elk Grove’s proposed expansion.
Expanding the sphere of influence would give the city more say in those types of decisions, said Echiburu.
“It’s a heads-up, informational declaration to the county that at some point in the future, if and when the conditions are right to expand the city limits, that’s where they’ll go,” he said.
For the moment, LAFCo staff said any recommendation on Elk Grove’s proposal is pending a review of the public comments they received on the draft environmental report.
Staff members are editing the report in response to comments and will officially notify the commission at a meeting Wednesday that work is still ongoing—the first time LAFCo has publicly addressed Elk Grove’s application in several months. The commission cancelled a meeting scheduled for February that would have provided an update on the draft.
“It was felt that how (the staff) derived their conclusions wasn’t sufficiently documented,” said LAFCo executive officer Peter Brundage. “The preparers didn’t quote certain studies or cite methodology to make it flow it easier or explain it a little bit clearer.”
If the changes significantly alter the draft’s content or conclusions, Brundage said LAFCo could recirculate the text for another round of public comment.