Growth at Any Cost in Elk Grove - Part II



By an Elk Grove Taxpayer | January 6, 2016 |

In Part I of this series, I cited a recent example of the $5 million giveaway by the City to the master developers of the Southeast Policy Area (SEPA), which essentially allowed developers to avoid paying upfront for the basic infrastructure. This was but one example of the City providing cash incentives and reduced development standards to encourage growth in Elk Grove. Other past examples have included free land for sports facilities, reduced neighborhood park and open space standards, reduced permit fees, and minimal architectural standards (as compared to Folsom and Roseville). 

While the City's commitment to encourage growth at virtually any cost is quite clear, there is one lingering question that has not been discussed that should be asked--when the dust finally settles and full city build-out occurs in say 30 years from now, what will be the quality of life for the 275,000 or so residents living in Elk Grove? We have some indications today of the answer to that question.

Taxes

All of the recently constructed (and future) housing tracts Elk Grove are assessed with supplemental annual taxes which essentially repay the tax-exempt bonds (Mello-Roos) that were issued by the local government agencies to cover the cost of major infrastructure and services that their projects created and will continue to impact (i.e. sewer, water, drainage, streets, schools, police, etc). 

While Proposition 13 ensures that property taxes can only rise by a maximum of two-percent a year, most residents in Elk Grove will be paying supplemental assessments that are uncapped and pegged to the rate of inflation of the ongoing cost of those services. While most economists forecast higher rates of inflation in the future, these open-ended taxes (along with HOA fees) will continue to add significant costs to homeowners. A typical homeowner in Elk Grove can easily pay up to $300-$500 per month in extra fees/assessments. 

Faced with a lack of funds to properly maintain our streets, trails, and whatever else they will choose to reference, the City Council is considering placing a half-percent sales tax increase on the November ballot. Sacramento County is also considering the same measure as well. If passed, we could be faced with a 1-percent increase. The Elk Grove retiree or low income resident of the future will be faced with significant open-ended tax assessments, rising costs of government services, and never-ending new tax proposals. 

Traffic

No one questions the fact that as the population grows, traffic congestion worsens. Combine that fact with the current City Council goal of becoming a destination city, then it is obvious that the Elk Grove residents of the future will need to be prepared for more overloaded intersections and increased commuting time. Traffic engineers can define the level of congestion from a technical standpoint, but how do you measure the nuisance factor of driving in congested cities? 

Citing the overriding need to encourage economic development, the City Council has legally skirted the legal requirement to mitigate excessive traffic impacts caused by new development, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the future. I routinely travel across town on Elk Grove and Laguna Boulevards, and while the multitude of shopping centers may represent the "economic development" that our leaders are referring to, at what point might residents say to themselves, "I have enough shopping opportunities, thank you". 

Open Space/Recreation

Any city can quickly become a faceless generic over-crowded suburb with unbridled growth policies in place. The city has only one regional park and a multitude of generic one-size fit all neighborhood parks. I don't foresee that trend changing anytime in the future. Developers have been allowed to reduce their open space requirements and pay fees as they go, as opposed to their previous requirement to provide completed turn-key parks in their new home tracts. Residents will now be moving into tracts having no idea when their park will be built.

Some might say that the future aquatic facility and soccer stadium will help meet the long-term open space and recreation needs of the city. That may be true, but I question whether the aging baby boomers and multi-generational nuclear families will turn out in significant numbers to justify those facilities as meeting the broad needs of our future residents. 

Even if there were the political will to do so, the city budget reserves will probably never permit any more land purchases for open space/recreation. That is unfortunate as there is a growing interest today in urban farms, eco-tourism, passive parks, nature preserves, etc. The much-ballyhooed Rural Area is largely nothing more than ranch homes on large lots, and I would not be surprised to see a push for higher density lot splits in that area as the current residents phase out and new investors or heirs move in. Three votes of the City Council and anything can be changed.

Will the future resident of Elk Grove look forward to a much larger auto-oriented consumerism-driven city with little in the way of natural and passive open space?

Challenging the City's Growth Policy

The City Council's attempt to expand the city future boundaries by 8,000 acres was denied by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) in 2014. But since that denial, the City has been working furiously to change its image of being a city with nothing more than rooftops and retail. 

I noted in Part I, the flexible zoning standards and ability to walk away from any requirement of the SEPA plan with just 3 votes of the Council. SEPA could easily be just more rooftops and retail. And those jobs? Well, the City Council will likely redefine jobs to mean any job, minimum-wage retail included. 

While waving the SEPA document at LAFCo, the General Plan is also being updated to boost the growth policies and the image of Elk Grove as a future regional jobs center and sports mecca. But as they say, the devil is in the details. In the fine print will surely be sufficient weasel words, so that the home builders and retail development industry can be assured that they won't have to risk their land investments waiting on jobs. 

Historically, most people tend to vote with their feet. Elk Grove is a bedroom community largely supported by stable government jobs and shorter-duration construction jobs. Continued growth always benefits some segments of the population, such as realtors, contractors, retailers, etc. But how long will the core residents, the government workers on a fixed salary, see unbridled growth as being desirous to their quality of life? What is the tipping point for them?

The first recently approved development agreement for a large residential project in SEPA states that the City will never declare a building moratorium on them. Wow, the "M" word has been spoken! What is most interesting is how this subject even came up. Do the developers fear that they may be faced with a backlash--a development "ticking time bomb" if you will, and that they might not be able to drink from the urban sprawl "well" forever (no water pun intended!)?

Faced with unavoidable traffic congestion, a shortage of natural open space, generic retail development, and uncapped tax assessments, will the families of the future choose to remain in Elk Grove after they retire? Will the glut of raw land and untold number of new homes coming onto the market each year enable us to receive the price we are anticipating on our "nest egg"? After all, supply and demand drives all things in our economy. Ever wonder why slow growth communities like Davis enjoy much higher property values? Supply and demand. 

In 2014, a small group of local citizens successfully challenged the city's growth policy by demonstrating a pattern of residential and retail sprawl. LAFCo soundly rejected the city's boundary expansion application, but if you were to wager on the prospects of similar defeat this time around, I would say just follow the money. The latest tack appears to be expansion of the sphere of influence in bits and pieces, a little at a time-steady as she goes.

Do the current residents believe our city leadership is making the right decisions about our future quality of life? I don't know, I'm putting my ear out there, but I don't hear anything...


Post a Comment

4 comments

Anonymous said...

Nailed it. Residents of EG are not interested in expanding the city limits to Lambert Road. The only ones pushing for expansion are developers who live elsewhere and the land owners who want to cash in their inheritance. The older parts of our city are decaying. You don't see that in Davis because they're slow growth and their quality of life is much better.

Lynn said...

To Anonymous at 08:09 Great comment. Look at how the general plan update is being done; infill and expansion; one category....so if you as a resident support "infill" you will also support expansion. Residents are not being given a choice here!
All current residents through their taxes are supporting expansion efforts whether they like it or not....so far to the tune of 695,000 plus! More money to consultants!

Anonymous said...

Elk Grove - a big sprawling suburban dumpster fire.

Anonymous said...

Great article from someone who GETS IT. It is my belief that we have some leaders who are lacking in decision making skills and are not aware of the stakeholders in every scenario of the process. By stakeholders I mean "the taxpayer".

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