Councilwoman Evelyn Tolbert has described a 5,500-home project slated for southwest Tracy since the 1970s as a mistake by today’s planning standards but said AKT Development’s lawyers could bankrupt the city if development there is nixed.
Tolbert said Tracy Hills was given the green light during the 1990s, before higher-density growth close to a city’s heart became the rage for urban planners.
“We got Tracy Hills annexed (into city limits) — it jumped through all the hoops and then boom, the philosophy changed,” she said.
But anti-Tracy Hills campaigner Celeste Garamendi said she would push Tracy Hills to the back of the 50-plus year development queue if she wins the mayoral race in November.
“No information has been presented publicly that could support the position of Evelyn,” she said. “Tracy Hills and some of the City Council pretend that Tracy Hills has vested rights. They have no vested rights to develop.”
Garamendi said the project would stretch Tracy’s resources, forcing police and students to travel between two city centers. She favors a higher-density, more pedestrian-friendly plan.
Garamendi’s opponent, 15-year councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Brent Ives, agrees it’s too early to start worrying about an AKT lawsuit.
“That’s all speculative — we don’t have that situation,” he said. “I don’t know why we would even discuss that right now.”
A report commissioned by the city found that the most environmentally and socially friendly way to grow Tracy would be to develop close to the city’s heart. But the general growth plan chosen by the City Council will stretch the town southwest, away from prime agricultural land and toward the Tracy Hills project.
AKT’s Tracy Hills project manager refused to rule out legal action against the city if the project is bumped by Garamendi’s political partners, including council candidates Carole Dominguez and Roger Adhikari.
“I’m not going to speculate on what our response would be in the unlikely event that the no-growth position prevails on the City Council,” said project manager Tim O’Donnell.
O’Donnell said that while planning philosophies had changed during the past decade, Tracy Hills remains a highly desirable project because it would be built around Interstate 580 and it wouldn’t burn up valuable agricultural land.
The project would, however, take up a swath of land that is home to a bounty of local wildlife.
About 2,000 acres of habitat for raptors, rattlesnakes, coyotes and endangered tiger salamanders would be bulldozed for the project seven miles from Tracy’s heart, but AKT was forced to abandon more than 3,500 acres of rugged land that is almost completely covered with native grass species under strict laws that protect endangered species.
Tracy Hills’ population is expected to peak at nearly 15,000 people, with as many as 10,000 jobs expected on-site, according to a 1997 estimate by Pacific Municipal Consultants for the city of Tracy. Tracy’s population was nearly 80,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Most of the land would be protected for endangered San Joaquin kit foxes.
Biologist Allen Donner from the Fish and Wildlife Service said although the foxes are rarely seen around Tracy Hills, the land is a “pinch point” that serves as a critical corridor between sparse populations to the north and south.
Ground squirrels are a more common sight, wearing down paths in parched grass, watched by hawks and eagles. Burrowing owls stumble between burrows, and coyotes and jackrabbits tear across the property. Endangered red-legged frogs find sanctuary in a solitary natural spring.
The protected land will be on the southwest of the ridges and power-lines that dissect the property. It will be invisible from Tracy Hills homes, but AKT asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to consider letting it convert old roads and trails through the land into hiking and horseback paths.
Tracy Hills was dreamed up in the 1970s as a county project, and it was lassoed into city limits in 1998. AKT bought the land from Grupe Development in 2001 after Tracy’s voters passed a slow-growth law. Neither AKT nor its local partner, Souza Realty, will build any homes there.
AKT will level the land and lay infrastructure, while Souza will help the company navigate city politics and sell land to builders, according to Mike Souza of Souza Realty.
Sacramento-based AKT won’t say how much land it owns statewide, and it doesn’t have a Web site, but its Tracy Hills project manager said the company is Northern California’s biggest developer.
The company is negotiating with the city for half of the 600 homebuilding permits available after the year 2012 for Tracy Hills, but the authors of the Measure A, including Garamendi, have claimed in court that the deal would break that law.
Souza said AKT and the city would find other ways to prioritize homebuilding there if the city loses the court case.
n To reach reporter John Upton, call 830-4274 or e-mail email@example.com.