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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Plan to Preserve Ag Buffer Around the City Contains a Key Loophole

Those who read the Davis Enterprise’s coverage of the agricultural mitigation item missed a great deal of several key aspects of the council’s actions. First there was the work of Councilmember Lamar Heystek to bring both Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Stephen Souza on board in supporting a 2:1 mitigation for all projects under all circumstances. There was also the key fight for adjacent mitigation whereby the council voted to support an adjacent buffer of one-quarter mile next to all developments regardless of whether that adjacent mitigation would exceed the 2:1 prescribed ratio. However, the council majority also exempted agricultural projects of less than 40 acres from adjacent mitigation.

For the sake of simplicity, there were two separate concepts introduced in this item. The idea behind mitigation is that any development along the periphery of Davis would require the developer to concurrently set aside twice as many acres to be protected and preserved as agricultural land. Crucial to the agricultural protection is the notion of adjacent mitigation, which means that there would be a quarter mile designated buffer zone along any development that would be designated as a protected land that would have a permanent designated land-use of agricultural. The idea here is that with that buffer zone, you reduce the possibility of developing the next parcel of land and therefore prevent leap frog development and urban sprawl.

In addition to the adjacent mitigation there would be another strip of land protected somewhere else that along with the adjacent strip would account for twice the acreage of that developed. So if you had a 100 acre parcel for development, you would have to mitigate for a total of 200 acres, part of that would be a quarter mile strip adjacent to your developed property and the rest could be wherever you could secure such mitigation within the planning zone.

The idea here is that as you develop outwards, you create a permanent urban limit line. Now Councilmember Saylor recommended that there be a sunset to this proposal. He argued that this would protect against any unforeseen consequences from this policy. However, that proposal died for lack of a second. The majority in this case argued that the council already would be able to change the ordinance if so needed, and that there was no need to sunset the law.

Councilmember Saylor accused Councilmember Heystek of making an 11th hour change here:
“I’m concerned that our ordinance should be targeting preserving of agricultural land in specific location where the quality is the best land possible, to secure it forever, I’m really interested in doing that, and overemphasizing the adjacency without a 20 or 50 year plan I think is not good. I was willing to balance that with the proposal that was here before us, because it was weighed carefully, through a deliberative process that included voice from all the stakeholders. I’m willing to vote for the ordinance as it has been presented to us in most respects, but this deviation is an 11th hour change that I’m troubled by. So I can’t vote for this.”
Councilmember Heystek strongly rebutted Mr. Saylor’s charge that this is an 11th hour change by reading the motion that was unanimously approved by Open Space Commission “not at the 11th hour but on March 7, 2005.”

They passed the following,
“in the rare instance that more than the 2:1 mitigation acreage is required to create the adjacent mitigation area, the project shall be required to require more than the required 2:1 mitigation acreage to satisfy the adjacent mitigation requirement of this chapter.”
Councilmember Heystek went on to explain that the “notion of 2:1 is not an 11th hour revelation,” instead it is something that has been in the process for a number of years. The delay of bringing this forward was due to the overlap of issues due to Covell Village.

As discussion proceeded, the rest of the council became more steadfast in their support for minimum 2:1 mitigation under any and all circumstances while continuing to support the priority of adjacency of the remaining mitigation. Finding Saylor voted against the project and was on the short end of a 4-1 vote. However, in the aftermath of the vote, a secondary discussion developed Councilmember Saylor backed off, switched his vote, and eventually joined the majority.

The irony about the 11th hour charge by Councilmember Saylor is that staff in the middle of the meeting passed out a handout with key amendments to the proposal—not at the 11th hour but rather at the 13th hour. Davis Open Space Coordinator, Mitch Sears, introduced the idea of exempting projects from adjacent mitigation that were less than 40 acres without any sort of notice to the council. This last-minute maneuver incensed Councilmember Heystek.

When pressed on the issue by Councilmember Heystek, Mr. Sears admitted,
"It's not a staff proposal.... We heard from several different councilmembers... that there was a possible interest in looking at... addressing smaller projects"
Several was actually two—Councilmembers Souza and Saylor.

One of the key small projects that was exempted was the Wildhorse Horse Ranch project. What this means is that with the exemption, the Horse Ranch would not be required to have adjacent mitigation—a one-quarter mile agricultural buffer around it--that would have effectively prevented the development of the adjacent property.

This brings up the question as to why you would need to exempt small projects from having a buffer?

Councilmember Saylor reintroduced discussion of the exemption for small projects a few hours after Mr. Sears initially presented the staff recommendation for an exemption. Then Councilmember Souza moved to exempt small projects. The motion eventually passed by a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem Asmundson, of course, joining her allies Councilmembers Souza and Saylor on this vote.

By exempting the Wildhorse Ranch Horse Ranch project from the requirement for adjacent mitigation, the Council majority supported the creation of a more substantial easterly city limit in this quadrant, starting from the northeast corner of the existing Wildhorse development all the way down to the southeast corner of the Wildhorse ranch project at Covell Blvd. By allowing this lengthened border absent any adjacent mitigation, it seems that the Council majority wants to facilitate future urban development on the agricultural land adjacent to the non-urbanized edge of the Wildhorse Ranch project, which is owned by Steve Gidaro.

It appears then that agriculture preservation won a key battle with the council voting to maintain a minimum of a 2:1 mitigation ratio and an adjacent mitigation buffer zone regardless of whether or not that buffer zone exceeded the 2:1 ratio. However, it was a mixed victory as it appears that the exemption, which was passed by the Council majority of Souza, Saylor, and Asmundson, was done so for the specific purposes of protecting key supporters and leaving the door open for them but not others to have future peripheral development.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting