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Bulldozed on Butano

By Carl Dolk. Cross-posted on (Nextdoor Del Paso Manor) 5/23/16

As a group of concerned residents and citizens, we began our fight against the development of a 148-unit affordable housing apartment in the fall of 2014, a fight that ended over a year later in Sacramento County Superior Court. Many are quick to label residents who oppose affordable housing as NIMBYs, “Not In My Back Yard” stalwarts. Even a Sacramento County Superior Court Judge, in his ruling against us, felt compelled to say, “the court acknowledges the depressing fact that, to at least some people, multifamily housing automatically equals decreased property values and increased crime” The comment seems not only inappropriate coming from the bench, but is inaccurate. We are not NIMBYs, but QUIMBYs, as our desire is for “Quality In My Back Yard.”

There is no question that the 5.16 acre infill parcel chosen for the apartment complex was in need of development. It was a parking lot that had remained unused for decades, complete with deteriorated asphalt and dying trees. We did not oppose the project in entirety; we simply wanted Sacramento County and the developer to address our legitimate concerns. Much to our dismay, we found that there is no way for residents to have significant input in the process of neighborhood development.

In an attempt to have our concerns regarding traffic congestion, sidewalks, and safe routes to school for children addressed, we attended meetings of the Arden Arcade Community Planning Advisory Council (CPAC), the Sacramento County Planning Commission, and the County Board of Supervisors. We provided testimony to the Commissioners and Supervisors, only to find out that voting members, with the exception of CPAC, were actually prohibited by law from taking into consideration our concerns about local development. County attorneys advised the Commissioners and Supervisors to base their decision only on adherence to the County's Multifamily Design Guidelines This is important: Our elected officials are prohibited from allowing residents to weigh in on the development of certain multifamily housing complexes impacting their own communities. Instead, they are required to only consider a set of watered down design guidelines.

The law requiring this egregious dismissal of our input stems from County Multifamily Design Guidelines adopted more than twenty years ago, in 1995, when the County was challenged by what is known as the Coleman lawsuit. Coleman challenged the County for failing to provide sufficient sites available for affordable housing. In 1996, the lawsuit was settled, with an additional requirement for the County to implement changes to its permitting procedure. Regulation 110-84.1 was codified in the zoning code, permitting the County to establish a “by right” approval process for certain multifamily housing projects. This gave the County authority to approve multifamily housing projects even when they don’t meet zoning standards. Section 110-125 of the zoning code provides that when there is a conflict between the zoning code and the Design Guidelines, the Design Guidelines shall prevail. Weren’t those zoning standards implemented to protect our quality of life by putting the burden of proof on developers to meet minimum standards regarding population density, traffic safety, and other environmental impacts?

Equally, if not more, alarming is that the mandated process allows qualifying multifamily housing projects to be subject only to a “ministerial” review process, which is equal to a rubber-stamp approval of the project with minimal County review of any sort. The ministerial designation allowed the County to issue the project developers a “Notice of Exemption” from a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). This was significant in that it kept the public from pursuing measures to study and mitigate the project’s impact to the surrounding community.

We realize there was and still is a desperate need for more affordable housing in California, and the intent of the Coleman lawsuit to force the County to expand and maintain its inventory of parcels of land available for housing development was an important achievement. Yet, when Coleman’s reach extends to allowing deviations from our local government’s permitting process, allowing the zoning code to be defied, requiring less than cursory review of a project, and forbidding meaningful public participation in the process, something has gone very, very wrong.

The Arden Arcade project in question is sited on a two lane stretch of Butano, which intersects notoriously traffic-burdened Watt Avenue just south of also-congested El Camino. Country Club Center, Walmart, and Sam's Club border Butano on the north side of the project, with a fire station just next door. We have concerns about the addition of an extra hundred or so more vehicles on that stretch of roadway, which is less than a half a mile in length. How will it impact emergency vehicles? What about the ability to make left turns onto Cottage from either Butano or Flowers Street? The building setbacks for the front, side, and rear to the street are less than zoning standards allow. The County had no plans to add sidewalks on Watt Avenue and on the north side of Cottage, despite the likely increase in the number of adult and child pedestrians, until testimony by several residents finally persuaded Supervisor Susan Peters to scratch up the funding for sidewalks on Cottage. Even some housing advocates were shocked to hear that there would be no elevators in this three-story apartment complex, which seems contrary to the Americans with Disabilities Act, especially since the project is funded by federal, state, and local governments.

It is our contention that all residents, including those who will occupy the apartments, deserve a process that mitigates impacts that are detrimental to the safety and comfort of all. The current codified dismissal of citizen input does little to build faith in our elected and appointed leaders, and causes only frustration and grief for all parties involved. Only the CPAC members, who live in Arden Arcade, had the willingness to challenge the County’s intent to allow the development to proceed. After listening to our concerns CPAC voted unanimously to reject the Project, but the committee serves only in the capacity as an advisory council, so their unanimous decision was disregarded by the Board of Supervisors.

After exhausting all administrative remedies, and with one last alternative available, six other concerned citizens and I filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate in Sacramento Superior Court, requiring a review of the County’s administrative record. Our contention was that the California Environmental Quality Act was applicable and the County erred by granting the project ministerial status, therefore also granting exemption from CEQA. In his decision to deny our appeal, the judge stated the County had no discretion to do anything other than approve the Development Plan Review and Design Review.

There is a growing chorus of voices wanting to reconsider cityhood for Arden Arcade. A regulation like 110-84.1, allowing citizens only to be seen but not heard, is an example of a law designed to meet the County's needs, without consideration of the specific needs of Arden Arcade. Perhaps if Arden Arcade had been incorporated and with our own zoning codes in place, the permitting process would have been for the good of the residents, rather than for the developer. The project size may have been smaller, the buildings would have a greater set back, and traffic mitigation measures would have been required. 

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