After three-year community battle, development planned for Rancho Cordova’s last open space is stalled

The black walnut grove, once an agricultural site, is now home to 23 protected species. (Photos courtesy of Mark Berry)

By Hannah Ross

On an overcast Saturday afternoon, two kites hover above a 41-acre swath of lush California green dotted with the remnants of a black walnut orchard — poised on the soft breeze lifting off the American River. The Kassis property is a portrait of near stillness, the fate of the land suspended in post-proposal rejection. 

The Kassis property sits wedged between a permanently pulsing Folsom Boulevard and densely packed neighborhood streets. It is one of the last natural spaces in Rancho Cordova: offering a key biological habitat for 23 protected species, two public easements, and a federally and state-designated floodway. 

“It’s the canary in the coal mine,” said Mark Berry, president of the adjacent Tiffany Farms Homeowner Association, and key organizer of the steering committee Preserve the American River — a branch of Save the American River Association — which he started after learning of a housing development planned for the area via written notice in August 2020. 

“To me, it’s become a lot more than just stopping an ill-thought-out housing development. It’s become a symbol of what’s possible in this age where we’re all concerned about climate and environmental change,” said Berry, who is the president of Delta Construction Project Management, a general contractor and has taught construction law at UC Davis Extension. 

He noted that Sacramento is one of the only major metropolitan cities in the United States with a designated wild and scenic river flowing through it. “What’s going on the American River Parkway is symbolic of what the rest of the country can or maybe cannot achieve to protect the environment going forward.”

A meandering flow to stasis

View of the Kassis property portion along the American River from above. (Photos courtesy of Mark Berry)

In 2020, developers TruMark submitted a proposal for a mixed-use housing development that would bulldoze 335 trees, raze the land, install a 6-foot retaining wall 20 feet from the bank of the river, and build 245 single-family homes on the historically significant green space

While the City of Rancho Cordova was gearing up for its environmental review of the property required by the California Environmental Quality Act, TruMark withdrew its application, citing “inaction” by the planning department of the city. They resubmitted their proposal under Senate Bill 330, also known as the Housing Accountability Act, passed during COVID to greenlight necessary emergency affordable housing. The new proposal sought to build 440 new homes, including 252 affordable housing units along Folsom Boulevard, while still proposing the 10-foot infill and river-side retaining wall. The City deemed the application complete in August 2023, triggering the 60-day consistency review process.

Berry saw the resubmission under SB 330 as a move to bypass the lengthy zoning, permitting and environmental surveying process required for standard mixed-use developments, and further, a means to escape the outpouring of public comment the city and developers had been receiving since his subcommittee and other concerned community members stepped in. 

But in October, the City of Rancho Cordova issued its consistency review effectively rejecting the proposal on five key grounds across state and Federal zoning violations. The first, a substantial hurdle for any developer, is the inability to build on a FEMA-designated floodplain.

As this portion of the American River riparian area is a designated 100-year floodplain, FEMA discourages the use of infill, barring extreme circumstances, and only after complete environmental review. Rancho Cordova Senior Planner Arlene Granadosin-Jones surmised in the city’s report that, “The proposed project is not entitled to ‘by right’ approval, and is therefore required to undergo comprehensive environmental review in accordance with CEQA.”

The consistency review also noted that TruMark’s proposal used outdated reports from 2019 for the tree count and was therefore inaccurate in its assessment of protected and private trees on the property. They would need to undergo a new count in addition to the full CEQA evaluation.  

The proposed plan was additionally inconsistent across a handful of Rancho Cordova zoning and city ordinances, including proposed violations of lighting, trash receptacle, and bike rack standards, inconsistent placement of park benches, and insufficient parking. The proposal also did not meet Rancho Cordova street standards, bike standards, drainage requirements, and traffic standards or comply with the City’s parkland dedication requirements. And lastly, the project would require TruMark to obtain a conditional use permit.

The consistency review included comments and additional requirements to reach conditional approval of TruMark’s proposal from public and government interest groups including the Public Works Department, Rancho Cordova Recreation & Park District, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Pacific Gas & Electric, Sacramento County Regional Parks, Sacramento Regional Transit and the Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

The review effectively assigned TruMark a lot of homework if they were to recommence the proposal process. 

“If we hadn’t been raising hell, they probably would have approved this,” said Stephen Green, president of Save the American River Association. “With all the opposition to this kind of development going in there, they finally had to pay attention to their own ordinances.”

Avulsions in the river bed of city planning

Since Rancho Cordova issued its consistency review of TruMark’s’ proposed housing development in October, there has been no word from the developers on whether they will restart the proposal process or sell the land. TruMark could not be reached for comment.

“We feel like we legitimately have been heard and our interests considered,” said Berry, who cited Rancho Cordova’s new City Manager Micah Runner as a force of facilitation for bringing community voices into the process. 

“We’d prefer if [TruMark] just sells the portion of the property that meets the environmental protection status and makes it part of the parkway, and [builds] some needed housing and some other infrastructure where it belongs up there on Folsom Boulevard,” said Berry. “I think they would find the NIMBYs would be agreeable.”

Berry said there are a handful of interested environmental advocacy groups, including Save the American River Association, who would be interested in buying the property and deeding it to the city as a public park. SARA has been successful in this strategy before, namely for the Waterton and S.A.R.A Access Park in neighboring La Riviera.

“We do hear from the public on this project and are always taking public input, but at this point in the review process, the city is required by state law to apply objective not subjective standards,” said Maria Chacon Kniestedt, communications and public affairs director for the City of Rancho Cordova said in an email. “If the developer moves the project forward, we will again follow state law which offers formal opportunities for public input as part of the process.”

For now, Barry and the Preserve the American River group are taking a much-needed breather — meeting now just every other week while they wait for the next move. 

“It’s amazing the local support that American River Parkway has from local communities,” Barry said, “I’ve been absolutely amazed at the dedication of people over these three years.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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