Sacramento County’s General Plan, Part Deux

North Notomas levee repair.

After months of hearings, some conveying actual information thanks in part to Mike McKeever’s SACOG Blueprint efforts, Sacramento County has declared itself ready to adopt a General Plan that encourages Smart Growth. The hearing is scheduled at 700 H, March 9 at 2:30PM.

County planners announced Smart Growth was part of the plan (never mind its existence in a never-enforced part of the 1993 Plan), and local land speculators protested. The Bee quotes former congressman and second-generation speculator Doug Ose: “I don’t know of any development in Sacramento that has sustained its value at that [nine units per acre target Smart Growth] density.”

Really? What about the neighborhood the Bee calls the most valuable in the region: nine-units-per-acre McKinley Park? Sure, it has sustained its value for nearly a century, but perhaps Ose measures sustained value only in geologic time. Such neighborhoods are what Smart Growth encourages, too: a pedestrian-friendly mix of stores, offices and homes that make viable transit a possibility.

The Sac County General Plan also displeased local speculators by eliminating an outlying 20,000-acre addition to the “urban policy area.” Developing such land might supplant development of the County’s 20-plus years’ supply of infill. If Ose and his colleagues can develop edge-of-the-city land, it’s much more profitable for them (gross margins approach 10,000%, after tax, for developing agricultural land), but residents would have longer pollution-spewing commutes which might
conflict with the State’s anti-global-warming legislation.

So the County abandoned its wholesale embrace of edge city development, instead promising to consider longer commutes on a “case-by-case-basis.” Sacramento County doesn’t approve every proposed development scheme, but local governments have granted plenty of large, misguided development requests in the last two decades. In fairness, the County has denied development in isolated instances too.

Sacramento City approved the worst development in the region: North Natomas–deep floodplain surrounded by weak levees. It’s so awful that developers had to pay a penalty to the federal agency funding its sewage treatment. Undermining the sensible development prohibition in Natomas, then-vice-president G.H.W. Bush made that $6 million penalty payable in installments and granted the speculators $43 million to raise the Natomas’ levees to pre-Katrina standards. Now residents, not developers, must raise the $300+ million more needed to conform to post-Katrina standards. Because the City has denied land speculators more entitlements in North Natomas, developers also want the County to approve the dumb growth there.

Besides the history of local development, recent lapses by our politicians, who regularly bow to speculation and greed, don’t exactly inspire confidence. Wall Street speculators absconded with 40% of the world’s wealth, and only Bernie Madoff is in jail. (Matt Taibbi reports 80% of the mortgages in the mortgage-backed securities that initiated the current recession were fraudulent.) In response to the fallout from this fraud, governments now propose cuts, not to speculator’s profits, or to banksters’ bottom lines, but to the elderly, to the disabled, and to unionized state workers’ compensation who (total compensation considered) make 4% less than their private sector equals.

Taxing that 10,000% profit on land speculation is apparently out of the question.

So my skepticism about both government reliability and Ose’s commitment to long-term value rather than short-term profits, remains intact. And the profits from even “little” local land deals remain large enough to fund the oligarchs’ political influence, and subsidize development on the very least suitable land, but it’s been that way for decades. Remember: 75% of George W. Bush’s net worth came from a stadium deal in Arlington, Texas.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have development that’s smart, for a change?

Mark Dempsey

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