Skip to main content

How does Sacramento County grow? Sprawl.

{Editor's Note: We ask our Newsroom Elves to try to be more positive in their articles about the County . Their standard response is that journalism means reporting about the real world.}

Sacramento County has consistently given away the store to big land developers. The County has yet to fall under the spell of Silicon Valley billionaire developers like the ones trying to buy a re-zoning election this November in Solano County. Instead, our beloved Board of Supervisors has chosen a "death by a thousand cuts" approach to urbanizing our hinterlands. Over the years the Supervisors' developer-friendliness made such a mess of places like Rancho Cordova and Elk Grove that those two communities ultimately had no choice but to incorporate and try to fix the problems.

Why does the County do that? Most likely, it is because of its structural governance problem. You see, under state law, counties are subordinate step-children to the state. When the state says jump, counties must jump. Oh, sure, counties can complain that jumping is hard, unfair and wearisome. But, ultimately, they have no choice but to comply. So when the state makes counties spend money on something new, counties have to figure out how to get funds for the new task(s). Though state laws require the state to pay for local mandates, a quirk in the law lets the state shift the costs to counties by simply saying local governments have authority to raise taxes. The state says that, even though it is unrealistic that local voters would approve increased taxes to pay for state mandates. Counties' primary roles involve areawide duties, like elections, tax collection, public health, jails and welfare. Knowing that voters are not inclined to approve tax hikes for those kinds of things (and certainly not at the 2/3 approval threshold required for bonds to construct new buildings), counties have little choice but to seek other new revenue sources. Urban sprawl is one of the easiest ways to bring in new money. By giving land developers free reign to build hundreds, even thousands, of new homes, counties get a lot of of new residents (AKA taxpayers) and some brand-new infrastructure, all paid for by someone else (the new home buyers).  That infrastructure - things like roads, curbs, gutters, drainage systems, sidewalks and land for schools and parks - won't require county expenditures for maintenance or replacement until years in the future, long after the current Supervisors have retired.

Unfortunately for counties, urban sprawl is most definitely not "smart growth". Beyond problems associated with permanent loss of open space, agricultural lands and forests, sprawl creates automobile-dependent urbanization that's bad for air quality and is not cost-effective for transit. To some extent, those problems have been buffered in recent years by the onset of online shopping and distributed/remote work as new societal norms. Still, the reality is that people who move into new communities in the boondocks will rely on cars for everyday trips. So, too, will the people who work in those communities: burger flippers, baristas, mow-blow-goers, and the like who cannot afford to live in the spiffy new houses. So that's why it was a problem when, back in 2013, our beloved Board of Supervisors made the dumb decision to approve yet another give-away to developers: the 2,669 acres at Cordova HIlls.

Cordova Hills is in unincorporated territory just upwind of the adjacent Kiefer Road dump, where all our garbage goes to die. It is on currently open land, pretty far from urbanized areas. The nearest pieces of existing urbanization are in Anatolia, where the County gave its blessings for 2714 homes on 1,213 acres before the City of Rancho Cordova was born in 2003. Now, 11 years after the County OKed Cordova HIlls, the Cordova Hills developer is poised to break ground on an intensely-urbanized project, one with 8,000 homes, nearly a million square feet of commercial buildings, and maybe a university to be named later. The Business Journal has an article (Ben van der Meer, "Groundbreaking planned within weeks for renamed Cordova Hills project, now Braden", Sacramento Business Journal, July 3, 2024) that speaks in positive terms about the project, euphemistically renamed "Braden" (an old Saxon word meaning “wide valley” or “broad hillside”) for its developer-characterized wide-open opportunities. The Business Journal article says, "the plan calls for more commercial development upfront" (anyone surprised?) that will be walkable and bikeable because, the project is, like, totally New Urbanism, dude. That's a PR pitch very similar to the one the Sili Valley billionaires' are promoting for their utopia in Solano County.  Never mind how anyone gets to or from the development. Pay no attention to the O&M costs of 8,000 new houses and a university along with the the commercial spaces to support them. An adequate water supply exists and will last forever. Everyone will use compost toilets and electric vehicles. Who benefits in the short run? Developers and the politicians they donate to. Who pays in the long run? Us, or maybe us plus the citizens of Rancho Cordova in the event the city annexes the area some day. (At least Rancho Cordova has demonstrated a willingness to clean up Sacramento County's shambles.)

People in Solano County have organized against the developer's baloney. Their sprawl proposal is massive; it essentially would double the County's population. The scale of the scam is smaller at Braden than in Solano, but Braden is similarly misleading. Braden touts "a sustainable, interconnected community tuned to innovators and our evolving work lives", one "where work, home, school and entertainment will be within 10-minute reach via EV shuttle, e-bike and foot power."  Braden's promotional renderings are much like those in Solano (drawn by the same artists?), depicting a magical, Thomas Kinkaid-like world. Being far less massive than the Solano utopia, Braden has had an easier time fooling the public. And they are slick about it, talking up the Tower Bridge Dinner and saying, "we'll create our own city of trees". By adding around 20,000 new residents to the Uncity, Braden is a 3%, bite-sized expansion of the UnCity. The much-bigger Solano proposal has stimulated a county-wide, even region-wide, conversation. Sacramento County's approach - a proposed development here and another one there - is harder to fight, even though the end result (wall-to-wall development) is the same.

A vibrant communal space with people, outdoor seating, a tech hub, co-work area, and coffee shop.
From An idylic town center, with shady outdoor conference rooms (temps always in the 70s?) just two blocks from neighborhood schools like those that used to exist in the 1960s.

 A final point: this is not new. The UnCity communities of Arden Arcade, Foothill Farms, North Highlands, Carmichael and Fair Oaks used to be just like the Braden site. That site is open land, way out there in the boonies. That's what our, by now, old and worn-out suburban areas were like once upon a time, too. Sacramento County turned our horse pastures, sheep ranches and orchards into the suburban jumble you see today, but without the pedestrian, cyclist-friendly, and transit pieces and lacking anything resembling a Braden-style, hipster, mixed use, town-center concept. However, we do have something in common with the future residents and businesses of Braden: a complacent, uncaring municipal government. Years from now Braden will be run-down, too. Unless it is annexed by Rancho Cordova or becomes its own municipality.

Join our mailing list