Keith Fichtner, project manager for Dunnigan Land Development Trust, plans to build 8,000 homes on the site of this almond orchard and nearby agricultural land.

Keith Fichtner, project manager for Dunnigan Land Development Trust, plans to build 8,000 homes on the site of this almond orchard and nearby agricultural land.

A General Plan

Yolo's balance of economic growth and agricultural preservation

Back Longreads Oct 1, 2009 By Tim Engle

From the corner of Pedrick Road and West Kentucky Avenue in Woodland, tomato fields stretch to the east. It’s a contrast to the scene of subdivisions to the west. The juxtaposition of plants and people marks where the city ends and the unincorporated area begins. If a proposal for the Yolo County general plan passes as currently written, that contrast will continue to delineate the limits of all four cities in the county for the next two decades.

Despite urban growth pressure from all sides and dwindling state support for open space preservation, with the exception of a possible fifth city of Dunnigan, the county will continue to be home to more tomato, almond and rice crops than people.

The open space along Interstate 5 camouflages Yolo County’s proximity to nearly 7.5 million people. On the proposed map of the 2030 general plan, a mass of zoned agriculture is squeezed between Sacramento and Solano counties. More than 90 percent of the land is zoned for agriculture or open space, and 80 percent of residents live on 5 percent of the land in the cities of Davis, West Sacramento, Winters and Woodland.

The proposed general plan update calls for an increase of 41,400 residents in the unincorporated area and a three-fold housing increase to 22,061 by 2030. Of 621,224 unincorporated acres, 25,277 would be urbanized at buildout. Most of that housing is earmarked for the communities of Dunnigan, Esparto and Knights Landing.

Business uses would also increase. The plan calls for an additional 1,700 acres for commercial and industrial use that could provide 32,000 jobs. One possible retail and job center could be located at Elkhorn and I-5 near the Sacramento River and airport where a hotel and restaurant development has been proposed.

Agriculture would remain the dominant use with 544,723 acres devoted to farming and 52,969 acres set aside as open space.

“Yolo County’s agricultural tradition goes back to the first general plan in 1858, which calls farming the highest and best use of land. We would like to keep it that way,” says David Morrison, assistant county planner. “We may end up being the last green span between the San Francisco Bay and Lake Tahoe.”

Since passage of the 1965 California Land Conservation Act (also known as the Williamson Act) the county has reduced property taxes based on agricultural revenue rather than development market value. Property owners who pledge 10-year agriculture production minimums pay reduced property taxes. In turn, the state reimburses counties for the shortfall.

It worked that way for 34 years until the governor all but eliminated funding for the program in the August budget revision.

“That has a devastating impact in Yolo County where two-thirds of the land outside the cities participates in the program,” Morrison says. The loss of those funds could cost Yolo County $1.3 million — almost 3 percent of the county’s general fund — every year until the contracts run out or the state restores funding.

Matt Rexroad, Yolo County supervisor and managing partner at Sacramento-based political consulting firm Meridian Pacific Inc., is on the front lines in Yolo County’s bid to deal with changes to funding through the Williamson Act.

Rexroad considers himself a moderate on the agriculture preservation continuum. “At one extreme are purists who believe the county should continue the Williamson Act at any cost. At the other end are people who believe we can strong-arm farmers into continuing to grow crops to their financial detriment by using strict zoning laws,” Rexroad says. He favors a strategic approach, removing land from the program that is not under development pressure and maintaining the tax incentive in a ring around cities where a buffer cuts off the path of denser housing.

“The governor can do what he wants to the program, but in the end, this is a contract between the county and farm owners that lasts for 10 years,” Rexroad says. “We have to think long term.”

“Williamson Act cuts hurt, but losing that crutch doesn’t mean we are going to let property owners start developing all the farmland,” Morrison says. Zoning and conservation easements still lock up major portions of the county in green zoning.

Every acre developed must be matched by an acre put into a conservation easement with an endowment to preserve it.

Urban limit lines in Woodland and Davis already make city expansion difficult. However, Rexroad advises constant vigilance as Davis’ Measure J expires in 2010 unless voters pass an extension.

Measure J was passed by Davis voters in 2000 and mandates voter approval for certain changes in land use within the city, including the conversion of agricultural lands or open space to urban designation.

“Yolo County’s agricultural tradition goes back to the first general plan in 1858, which calls farming the highest and best use of land.”

David Morrison, assistant planner, Yolo County

Even in farm-oriented Yolo County, growth is inevitable and necessary to maintain a healthy economy. “Agriculture is the bread and butter, but it can’t be the only thing; we don’t want to put all our eggs in the [agriculture] basket,” Morrison says. “For the health of the government and the general economy, we need to diversify.”

The solution penciled out in the proposed general plan update could mean as many as 25,000 residents for the small town of Dunnigan. The community of 800 people 44 miles north of Woodland is far enough away that it doesn’t compete with existing cities. The soil currently used for almonds and wheat is considered class-2 dirt: good, but not as good as other areas of the county. It is also out of the floodplain and seismically stable.

The area targeted for growth now is scattered with freeway services, mobile home parks and sprawled ranchettes. However, it could eventually support a 2,300-acre planned community of 8,000 homes. At least, that’s the vision of Keith Fichtner, project manager for Dunnigan Land Development Trust, the brainchild of Tim Lewis Communities, Miller Holdings Investments Inc. and Elliott Homes.

Where visitors now see a field of sunflowers bowing their heads at the end of the summer, Fichtner envisions an arc of community shops, a walking bridge over I-5, offices, a Wal-Mart, library, high school and central park. Apartments, condominiums and homes could also sprout at a density of eight units per acre.

“It won’t be easy, but this is a group of veterans that has the wherewithal and the guts to pull it off,” Fichtner says.

Within five years, the group plans to start bringing services such as sewage, gas and jobs to create a self-sustaining city. Water would be tapped from Shasta Dam through the Tehema-Colusa canal, which runs a stone’s throw from Dunnigan.

Morrison estimates basic infrastructure at around $50 million. Fichtner put the total price tag for development at “a couple of hundred-million dollars.”

“This is not a subdivision,” Fichtner says. “It is a community where people will want to live because it has a wide range of housing and job options.”

Where will residents of this new rural oasis come from? Morrison says Dunnigan is not competing with Sacramento and Chico. “It will attract people who would otherwise go to Colusa, Yuba City or Marysville.”

“It will appeal to forward-thinking people who want to live in a sustainable community,” Fichtner says.

As the development stands now, eclectic best describes the county’s northern outpost. Currently, a big chunk of the population consists of retirees who escaped the high prices of the Bay Area to neatly kept mobile home parks or one-acre parcels in the shadow of a eucalyptus forest.

The real estate downturn hit Dunnigan hard. Properties that were selling in the $400,000s are now a fraction of the price.

The landmark business familiar to I-5 truckers is Bill & Kathy’s diner. Richie Bros. Auctioneers, which boasts locations in Amsterdam, Sydney and Abu Dhabi, is the county’s top sales tax generator, but only employs 30 people. A historic church with stained-glass windows and a general store mark what is left of the old town dating back to the 1800s.

“We will be creating a new kind of city from scratch,” Fichtner says.

In order to make the project as climate-friendly as possible, the county plans to put limits on how quickly residential neighborhoods can grow before 1.2 living-wage jobs are created per household.

“Otherwise it becomes a bedroom community of Woodland and a creator of greenhouse gases,” Morrison says.

How those limits would be enforced is being watched closely by other counties and the California Attorney General’s Office, which just filed a lawsuit against Pleasanton for not adequately addressing climate change in its general plan.

The county is working with the developer to come up with realistic benchmarks that could include phases of around 500 homes mixed with jobs that can afford nearby housing.

“We want to give the developer an incentive to attract jobs,” Morrison says. “Building houses is the easy part.”

At the same time, the county wants to match any limits to market conditions. “We understand that businesses need a certain amount of customers to support operations and we want to make sure we take that into account,” Morrison says.

Fichtner says early development could take advantage of the 16,000 cars that drive through the interchange of I-5 and I-505 every day. Eventually, he would like to see the community focus inward as critical mass brings in the services needed to sustain a population seven times larger than the one currently driving to Woodland for groceries and employment.

That dream could take time. “It probably won’t be built out by the end of the 2030 general plan,” Fichtner says.

Breaking New Ground

After nearly two decades of planning, Carmel Partners broke ground in August on West Village, a $280 million mixed-use community designed to provide affordable housing for UC Davis faculty and students. The project could eventually be home to 4,350 residents. Also slated for the first phase: 60,000 square feet of community college space and a satellite high school.

Using a $2 million grant from the California Energy Commission, the project calls for heat-reflecting roofs, photovoltaic panels, solar water heaters and a biodigester developed at UC Davis that uses campus-generated food scraps. A smart grid network linked to advanced battery storage could help the community reach its goal to generate as much energy as it uses.

The 130-acre project, west of Highway 113 and south of Russell Boulevard, would include a village square and 45,000 square feet of commercial property. When both phases are complete, it could include 475 homes for faculty and staff starting at $400,000, well below market rates, as a way to recruit top talent to the campus. Plans also make room for a day care and classroom space run by Los Rios Community College District and Davis Joint Unified School District. Green space with bicycle and pedestrian paths would connect the project to the campus.

The first phase with room for 600 students could be ready for occupancy in fall 2011, according to Carmel Partners, which will design, finance and construct the project. The project could eventually include apartment-style housing for as many as 3,000 students.

UC Davis is investing $14.5 million in roadways and utility infrastructure to connect West Village to campus systems while retaining ownership of the property. According to the university, more than 1,500 prospective buyers have already inquired about purchasing a home.

— J.T. Long

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