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Green Field Development in California

By Tinn Lee
In July 12, 2017
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by Paul R. Menard, AIA
AIACV Board Director
Quality Compliance for the Judicial Council of California Facilities Services Office

 

Earlier this month, as three companions and I drove past Folsom on Highway 50 for a day of hiking in the Desolation Wilderness, I saw the faint beginnings of a new development that had been opposed for years by local environmental advocates. The orange dripline marker fences, the rolling iron, the dark earth turned over and exposed to the sun for the first time next to the tawny grass under the valley oaks. I am familiar with the proposed development in this area and the opposition to it because of my involvement with the Land Use Committee of the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS). Some very dedicated and intrepid environmentalists worked long and hard to keep the oak savannahs south of Highway 50 from being developed. And yet, here was the visible evidence that they had been defeated by the land speculator’s money once again.

 

This is the land bounded on the west by Prairie City Road, on the east by the El Dorado County line, and on the south by White Rock Road. These 3,510 acres have been added to the City of Folsom’s sphere of influence (SOI) by the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) and ultimately annexed by the City of Folsom. An article in the August 10, 2016 edition of the Folsom Telegraph lays out the numbers for Folsom Ranch—3,500 total acres, 2.4 million square feet of retail, office, and industrial will consume approximately 220 acres (my calculation), 1,000 acres for open space, leaving 2,280 acres on which to place 11,337 homes yielding a residential density of 5.0 dwelling units (DU) per acre. As is usual for this type of development, the homes will precede the commercial, so the new homeowners will be driving to work, probably heading for jobs located to the west. The already heavily congested Highway 50 will become more so. The new homeowners in Folsom Ranch will be annoyed by the duration of their commute, but will they understand the underlying political and economic realities?

 

Land use decisions in California, as in most of these United States, are made by local elected officials—city council members and county supervisors. The political campaigns of those running for these positions are some of the least watched and cared about in the modern electoral environment. But not everyone is apathetic about these elections. Land speculators are keenly interested in the outcomes and spend substantial sums of money to make sure they will have the votes to advance the entitlements for the land they own or control. If land is purchased when it is zoned for agricultural use,  and is then re-zoned by the local elected officials at the request of the speculator to allow 5 DU per acre for residential development, enormous profits result, even before any ground is broken. At its core, this type of transaction is a public gift to the land speculator. Did you have in mind when you voted for your city council member or county supervisor, that an inevitable part of their political agenda would involve enriching land speculators? And so it goes—the oak studded grasslands south of Highway 50 fall victim to the earth-moving machines.

 

The front page of the July 9, 2017 edition of the Sacramento Bee below the fold (yes, I still receive the newspaper delivered to my front porch in Carmichael every day) displays the headline: “Growth Plans Don’t Sit Well with Amador County“. The article is about the Jackson Highway corridor between South Watt Avenue and Grant Line Road. The County of Sacramento  asked Caltrans to relinquish control of this 8-mile stretch of the two-lane State Route 16 so the county could turn it into an urban arterial street that would become the spine for up to 30,000 new homes, north and south of the highway. Some citizens of Amador County are not happy because they believe the increased frequency of traffic signals and the lower speed limit will hurt tourism in Amador’s wine region and historic towns like Sutter Creek. The land speculator’s money is patient and persistent.

 

Yes, we have a housing shortage in California, especially housing that would serve those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Yes, California needs more work force housing. Green field development at 5 DU per acre does not result in work force housing. Affordable housing is almost never properly integrated into new housing communities. Instead, the developers are often allowed to contribute to a fund to be used at some future date to build affordable housing … somewhere else.

 

What is the alternative to speculator-driven green field development? The aging commercial corridors must be renewed. Arden Way, El Camino Avenue, Marconi Avenue, and Fair Oaks Boulevard in the Carmichael community of north east unincorporated Sacramento County provide great opportunities for this renewal. Similar aging commercial corridors can be found throughout the City and County of Sacramento and throughout California. And the local elected officials sometimes support this renewal and make infill development more attractive. Drive, or better yet ride your bike or walk, along Fair Oaks Boulevard near Carmichael Park these days and you will see the Fair Oaks Boulevard Corridor Plan taking shape in the form of separated sidewalks, median planting areas, bike lanes, crosswalks, and two lanes for automobile traffic in each direction instead of three. This plan was designed by Bruce Race, FAIA, of RACESTUDIO, see the web link below.

http://www.racestudio.com/reinventing-the-strip.html

 

Many years in the planning, this revitalization of an aging commercial corridor is finally becoming real. It is possible that developers will see this public investment in streetscape infrastructure and, with the help of the architects they hire, create mixed use projects to further enliven the heart of Carmichael. So, the local elected officials also sometimes go against the green field status quo and support infill development with meaningful reinvestment in our aging commercial strips.

 

I pointed out the nascent development south of Highway 50 as we drove past Folsom to my car mates. We hiked from Wright’s Lake up to near Rockabound Pass, through some magnificent melting snow fields. The Sierra Nevada on fantastic display all around us. I will leave you with some poetry—the last stanza of four comprising Inversnaid by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

What would the world be once bereft

Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,

O let them be left, wildness and wet;

Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

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