Wave of new El Dorado development projects fuels fight with slow-growth advocates
In the county that brought the Gold Rush, surging with newcomers and rough-hewn mining camps, prospects of another boom are unnerving the modern-day populace.
Amid an improving real estate economy, developers are proposing nearly 7,000 new houses for the western slope of El Dorado County.
The new wave of potential major projects is emerging after a 2004 county general plan that promised to preserve the county's rural character while anticipating up to 21,000 additional houses.
In a region renowned for perhaps the most bitter growth battles in the lower Sierra Nevada,current residents are pushing back. Where miners once ravaged land for gold, determined homeowners are digging in for a protracted political fight to protect rustic lifestyles from new people, more houses and increased traffic.
Slow-growth advocates are now threatening a 2014 vote to limit new construction.
"We are shaking our heads and saying there is no way these can fly," said Bill Center, an environmental activist and former county supervisor.
The last time the county pondered such a development surge – approving ongoing projects that are bringing 11,000 new houses to El Dorado Hills – voters revolted by passing Measure Y in 1998. It prohibited any residential project of five or more units that caused or worsened traffic gridlock during peak commuting hours. Voters reaffirmed a follow-up measure 10 years later.
Wary of resistance, major investors, including the developer of the upscale Serrano community in El Dorado Hills, are now promising nature-friendly "agri-suburbia" residential projects.
They pledge to respect oak woodlands, wildlife passageways and local traditions of winemaking and apple growing while paying for new roads and building the future of El Dorado County.
In the biggest project, Parker Development Co., the Serrano developer, is seeking to build 3,236 homes and townhouses, a shopping center and an outdoor pavilion amid oak trees, a quarry lake and rusted iron remnants of a turn-of-the-century limestone mine.
Another development firm, tied to the Gallo winemaking family, is planning 800 houses nearby. The two projects pledge to set aside 640 acres for a regional park, more than half the size of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
"We're going to present the Board of Supervisors with a first-class plan," said Bill Parker, president of Parker Development, who expects a vote next summer. "We hope they realize there is no more logical piece of land to develop than Marble Valley."
In this corner of El Dorado County's growth politics, Thomas Howard, Parker Development's vice president of construction, leads a tour in a picturesque valley, past limestone outcroppings and golden, tree-shaded vistas.
He describes a future gateway road to a residential community – with wine grapes to be planted on roadsides and the center median – and a winery and bed-and-breakfast cottages to be built in grasslands ahead. "Everybody who lives in this community will be able to say, 'I own a winery,' " Howard says.
A few miles higher in the foothills, a line of hand-painted roadside signs screams in urgency over another proposed subdivision called San Stino.
On Mother Lode Drive, amid country houses and roadside farms, a sign reads, "HELP US." Three more follow: "Stop." "1,045." "Houses."
"Oh I hate it," says Kristine Killeen, gazing to the back of their property and the boundary of the planned 645-acre San Stino development. "Too many cars, too many people. They're going to double the population of Shingle Springs."
Greg Killeen said the subdivision construction would disrupt what the couple felt they were promised eight years ago when they moved to the area from San Jose: a quiet life amid large acreage properties.
Next-door neighbor Walt LaFranchi, who moved his family there from San Francisco in 1990, says, "I would say, 'No San Stino' and, literally, 'Not in My Backyard.'
"Why is this development leapfrogging El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park and going right into the heart of Shingle Springs?"
The San Stino property, between French Creek and Old French Town roads, is zoned for houses on 5-acre parcels. But the community designation says developers may seek approval from the county for higher-density construction there.
Attorney Joel Korotkin, a partner in the San Stino project, argued the development is thoughtfully planned – with suburban houses on clustered lots to set aside 40 percent of the land as open space.
"This represents a progressive idea of developing the land," said Korotkin, who says he's hoping to address neighbors' concerns. "You stay off slopes. You preserve the tree cover and the wetlands. You try what you can do to fit in."
El Dorado County, which topped 20,000 residents in 1850, two years after James Marshalldiscovered gold in Coloma, didn't surpass 30,000 people until after 1960. But since 1980, it has more than doubled in population to over 180,000.
Real estate market forecasts suggest nearly 12,000 homes could be built in El Dorado County over the next two decades. And just across the border with Sacramento County, Folsom is planning to add 10,000 houses south of Highway 50, adding to potential regional congestion.
"We need to have balanced growth," said Supervisor Ron Mikulaco of El Dorado Hills, who says he also worries about development drying up water supplies. "But I'm not hearing people say shut the gate behind us. I hear people say, 'We've got to be smart.' "
The six-county Sacramento Area Council of Governments has adopted regional planning principles that recommend managing new growth with "sustainable communities" that protect open space and are close to transportation and other amenities.
One project included in the SACOG regional plan is the Marble Valley custom home, townhouse and residential development in El Dorado Hills. SACOG Chief Executive Mike McKeever said it meets the agency's "blueprint principles," including diverse housing types and "preserving natural resources."
Center says the Marble Valley plan reflects an "urbanist perspective" that is "appropriate for midtown Sacramento." But he calls it a disaster for El Dorado County that would gridlock Highway 50.
Similar sentiments are being voiced on other projects as residents are creating anti-development Facebook pages, rallying neighbors and giving fits to would-be builders.
"We're going to see a lot of pressure on politicians when they get hit with 500 emails," said Craig Sandberg, an attorney for Tilden Park, a proposed hotel, commercial and residential development near Highway 50 that is also drawing the ire of residents in Shingle Springs. "Social media has made it a whole new world."
It was the San Stino project, one of the first of the proposed developments to go before county planners, that particularly revealed residents' growth-averse pulse.
Heeding neighbors' protests, supervisors refused to approve a county contract for an environmental study for the project – even though the developer was to pick up the costs.
Korotkin, who says he is continuing to work to win support for San Stino, said he went ahead and hired a consultant to prepare the document.
His development group is also seeking approval to build 605 houses south of Green Valley Road in El Dorado Hills. That project – Dixon Ranch – faces resistance from a neighbors' group called the Green Valley Alliance.
Another project by Parker Development – which would build a total of 1,028 homes on the former El Dorado Hills Golf Course and a second site – is also stirring controversy.
"It has conjured up all the warring factions," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Ron Briggs, who was elected in 2006 on a platform of keeping the county rural.
Briggs said supervisors are going to have to face major decisions on the county's future over the next two years.
Seeking consensus, Briggs is trying to keep the developers talking with the "no (traffic) gridlock people" who passed Measure Y. He also says he wants to include voices of the "new element" – recent residents who bought homes expecting newfound rural lifestyles to be preserved.
"They say they want economic growth and sane development, but just don't do it here," Briggs said.