City Encourages Natomas Growth Despite Flood Danger

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, September 8, 2008

Sacramento doesn’t have to worry about any hurricanes, but it does have some of the nation’s most vulnerable levees – especially in the Natomas neighborhood.  So vulnerable, in fact, that the federal government is effectively barring all new development there from early December until the levees get fixed.  But rather than halt all Natomas growth right away, Sacramento is actually encouraging it.  And critics say the city is putting its financial well-being ahead of public safety. 


There are two kinds of levees, says Jeff Mount: 
Mount: “Those that have failed and those that will fail.  And the Natomas levees will eventually fail.” 
Mount’s a geology professor and levee expert at UC Davis, and he says Sacramento has no business building in Natomas right now.  Fix the levees first, Mount says, before you let new residents and businesses move in behind them. 
Mount: “Look, we learned plenty of lessons.  We’ve learned them on the Mississippi River; we learned them in our own system; we learned them in New Orleans.  The point is, levees fail.  And it’s very hard to predict when they will fail.  If you’re rushing to develop and put more people out there before you fix the problem, then we know what’s being put first.  And it ain’t safety.” 
But city manager Ray Kerridge couldn’t disagree more.  Sure, the Natomas levees need upgrades, he says.  But they’re nowhere near as bad as the federal government says they are. 
Kerridge: “I think people gotta be realistic about this.  There’s been no flood in that area since 1911.  That’s a hundred years.  The levees are in much better shape now than they were all those years ago.” 
And as Sacramento’s top administrator, Kerridge knows how much it needs Natomas to grow.  The city’s budget is out of whack – a $58 million deficit this fiscal year, and going up.  And new development equals new revenue – in the millions of dollars.
On December 8th, the feds will cut off all new growth in Natomas until the levees reach the bare minimum standard of protection.  And Kerridge wants the city to continue approving building permits in the flood basin right up until that deadline. 
Kerridge: “Here’s an opportunity for us to do some good things for the city, to do some good things for the people in Natomas.  Also, there’ll be property taxes, sales taxes, jobs.  And I think we absolutely need to take advantage of that opening that the federal government has provided us with.” 
That’s exactly what the city has done.  Since the feds first announced their intention to cut off growth back in January, Sacramento officials have issued several hundred new building permits in Natomas.  Bob Chase is the city’s chief building official.  He’s leaving the politics to others, but says his job is to treat Natomas applications normally until the deadline. 
Chase: “We certainly don’t want to do anything to put anybody in the way of danger.  But legally, right now, we operate a building department.  There’s absolutely nothing that prevents us from issuing permits to somebody that wants them, prior to Dec. 8.” 
Still, the deadline has already proved costly to the city.  Just last week, former congressman Doug Ose’s development company postponed a big Natomas project: 70 acres of empty land just west of the Del Paso Road exit off Interstate 5. 
Ose: “I met with the city and talked about the various component pieces that need to be in place in order to be able to pull our building permits by December 7th.  And after a long discussion, we came to the conclusion that it just wasn’t realistic.” 
The three hotels, office and retail space Ose was proposing would have brought the city at least $2-3 million a year once it was complete – not to mention, hundreds of new jobs.  Ose still hopes to build when the restrictions are lifted in a couple of years, but he’s still disappointed.  The city manager’s office is, too.  As for Jeff Mount?  He’s got some advice for the city: 
Mount: “When you put jobs over public safety, what you’re essentially doing is concentrating the disaster in the future.  So you need to fix your levees before you start putting people behind them.” 
The levee upgrades are under way, but they’re moving more slowly than originally expected.  It now looks like the federal government will probably keep the ban in place until at least 2011.  And the levees won’t meet the federal government’s minimum safety standard until 2012.  So for the next few years, Sacramento will have to balance its budget without new revenues from Natomas.