Nearly three hours after it began, El Dorado County’s Board of Supervisors closed a contentious debate over almost 7 acres of empty space at Francisco Drive and Green Valley Road in El Dorado Hills. Supervisors voted at the end of the March 19 board meeting to approve rezoning the Winn Communities property from residential to commercial use. District 1 Supervisor Ron Mikulaco opposed the motion.
Tom Winn told the board that he has owned the property in question for 25 years and “between 1999 and the mid-2000s, county development staff agreed that the land should have been commercial instead of residential.” Asking rhetorically if the parcel is good residential, he said no. Asking again if it’s good commercial, he said yes.
He went on to describe the location as “one of the busiest and most visible (non-freeway) intersections in the county.”
George Carpenter, representing Winn Communities, introduced the developer’s perspective and stated unequivocally that the vacant corner “was always contemplated as a commercial property.” Carpenter called an earlier proposed development a potential example of “smart growth” and one that would offer 61 permanent jobs. That particular project has since been withdrawn by the developer after the county’s Planning Commission recommended denying several aspects of the proposal. The 28,000 square foot project had potentially included a pharmacy and fast-food shop, both with drive-through features.
Three of the four corners of that intersection are held by commercial enterprises. A large Safeway anchors the northeast side. Lake Forest shopping center is opposite at the southeast corner. The northwest corner includes the El Dorado Saloon. Winn’s parcel holds the southeast section, and arguably should have been a commercial zone all along.
Opposition to the rezone was more passionate if not more numerous than those speakers who weighed in for commercial development. The first to speak described herself as a “teacher and a mom” whose family moved to Francisco Oaks because “it is so nice” and “is a community about family.” More retail is not needed and “there’s already too much empty retail space,” she said.
Norm Rowett, speaking for the El Dorado Hills Area Planning Advisory Committee, recommended denial of the rezone citing “traffic concerns” and added, “Unfortunately, we think it’s not right for commercial” as has been proposed so far.
A young woman home from college said she grew up nearby and reiterated that there’s “too much vacant retail now” and that a new commercial project would “destroy the last undisturbed natural area” in the neighborhood.
Paul Gratt expressed concern for the impact on air quality that could come with “10 times more cars idling and using drive-throughs” at the intersection. Regarding the notion of rezoning to commercial without a specific project, Gratt challenged, “If you don’t know what’s going to be there, how can you determine future pollution?”
Adrienne (Claire) LaBeaux delivered a petition to the board with hundreds of names opposed to the commercial development and rezone.
“That piece of property does not generate 61 jobs,” LaBeaux declared. “Sight distances are not up to standards … The Planning Commission voted twice against this due to traffic.”
Later, she enumerated the “empty retail” sites at the intersection. LaBeaux said there are six vacant spaces at the Safeway center, eight at Lake Forest and 11 at the Saloon corner concluding that “it does not make sense to approve this rezone.”
A four-year resident of Francisco Oaks was the final public forum speaker. Having moved from the Bay Area, she said the El Dorado Hills area is “great because there’s not commercial on every corner.” She continued, “Our little corner will not solve the tax-leakage problem and more traffic would put lives in danger.”
Some of the opposition to the rezone was based more on timing than on any specific project. Speakers noted that the board did not need to take action that day because there is no actual project proposal on the table.
Speaking in favor of the rezone, Pat McClain recalled that there had been fierce opposition back when the Safeway was proposed but that it is widely accepted and supported now. He also said “there’s room for smart commercial space” at the intersection.
Norm Brown, a former partner of Tom Winn in the Francisco Oaks development, praised Winn’s integrity and concern for the community and urged the board to accept the Planning Commission’s recommendation “today; and let them come back with different plans.”
Other speakers supported commercial rezoning to “complete” the community and to provide services and jobs that are not currently available in the area.
Responding to the question of taking action now rather than later, George Carpenter told the board, “It’s really important to us. Businesses don’t want to talk (to developers) until they know it’s zoned for business, and we need to send that message today.”
District 2 Supervisor Ray Nutting said he supported the rezone for jobs and commercial with “low trip generation” but needed assurance that the board would ultimately have control over any future development.
Norma Santiago, District 5, recognized analyses done relative to the county’s General Plan and Zoning Ordinance but wondered about possible environmental issues.
Development Services Planner Peter Maurer said, “We have general ideas of mitigation but not site-specific studies for wetlands, oaks, noise or traffic. We recognize that there will be impacts (from any future project).”
Board Chairman Ron Briggs said that being “personally sensitive to the citizens, weighing the overall good or bad (for the county) is not to be taken lightly.”
Following up on a brief presentation regarding realignment of Francisco Drive, District 3 Supervisor Brian Veerkamp noted the related traffic issues and cautioned, “We’ve got to be very careful not to make the problem worse.”
Discussing his “no” vote with the Mountain Democrat the day after the meeting, Mikulaco called attention to concerns about traffic on Green Valley Road and said he would follow the lead of former District 1 Planning Commissioner Lou Rain who had opposed the project and rezone.
“I listen to the people in this community,” Mikulaco concluded.
A shotgun e-mail from LaBeaux late Wednesday described her assessment of the meeting and the board’s action. Disappointed with the rezone, she noted:
“… However, (supervisors) were clear in their discussion that they need to see something that is a “low traffic” generator go there. Winn will have to come up with a new planned development and new traffic studies etc. We will work with him to try and get a decent solution. While I’m disappointed, I’m not surprised. And remember, we started this process facing fast food and pharmacy, both with drive throughs, so we’ve at least won that battle.”
Contact Chris Daley at 530-344-5063 or [email protected] Follow @CDaleyMtDemo.