June 6, 2008

Sunrise Douglas Project Poses New Legal Headaches for Rancho Cordova

By Mary Lynne Vellinga, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jun. 6--When the city of Rancho Cordova incorporated, it inherited the 18,000-home Sunrise Douglas housing project approved by Sacramento County supervisors in 2002.

It also inherited a major legal headache.

In the latest legal fallout, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lloyd Connelly ordered Rancho Cordova to rescind the county's approval for the Sunrise Douglas community plan, and the more detailed plan for its first major section, SunRidge.

Before approving a new plan, Connelly ruled, Rancho Cordova will have to redo portions of the county's environmental review for the project, even though nearly 2,000 houses already have been built.

Sunrise Douglas was one of the largest housing developments approved during the housing boom of the early 2000s. It fans out from the intersection of Sunrise Boulevard and Douglas Road.

In 2007, the state Supreme Court ruled that the county had failed to nail down a long-term water supply for Sunrise Douglas, which so far has relied on groundwater, or to evaluate the possible impact of groundwater pumping on the nearby Cosumnes River.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Connelly to decide what the young city would have to do to rectify the situation.

"We're quite satisfied with the ruling; we think it's a great victory for the environment," said Stephan Volker, lawyer for the Environmental Council of Sacramento, the Sierra Club and Vineyard Citizens for Responsible Growth, a group of residents who live near the wells used to pump water for Sunrise Douglas.

Despite their victory, the environmental groups haven't succeeded in stopping construction in Sunrise Douglas. About 9,000 planned houses are covered by approved maps, which Connelly said he could not rescind.

But what the courts did not do, the economy has done anyway. Construction in Sunrise Douglas has slowed dramatically.

"There's not a lot happening because of the economy and the market," said John Hodgson, a consultant representing Sunrise Douglas landowners.

It's not the first time the city has done battle in court over Sunrise Douglas. In 2007, Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette overturned the city's approval of the Preserve, a development of 2,700 homes planned for the middle of the Sunrise Douglas community.

The California Native Plant Society filed the lawsuit, charging that the Preserve would have a devastating impact on some of the most valuable vernal pool habitat in the Sacramento region.

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that fill in winter, flower in spring and host a variety of endangered plants and animals.

Federal regulators envision a wetlands corridor running along a tributary of Morrison Creek, but the city backs a plan by developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos and his partners to move the creek and replace it with a high-density town center.

The city has appealed Marlette's decision.

A third lawsuit over Sunrise Douglas, also filed by the California Native Plant Society, challenges permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The plant society argues that the wetlands protection plan devised by the federal agencies for Sunrise Douglas is inadequate.

In a July 2007 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Martin J. Jenkins issued a preliminary injunction ordering builders to stop filling wetlands in the Sunrise Douglas area, pending the outcome of the case. The injunction covers only those portions of the land where vernal pools haven't already been plowed under.

Rancho Cordova Planning Director Paul Junker said the city has plenty of home lots ready for building, including many in Sunrise Douglas.

"In reality, these lawsuits are not affecting the ability for builders to construct homes in Rancho Cordova," Junker said.


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