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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Shriner's Property Leads to Discussion on Open Space and Ag Preservation

Last week, the Davis City Council took up the issue of the possible acquisition of the Shriner's Property by the City of Davis from Steve Gidaro for future preservation of open space and also a potential future spot of the sports fields.

While in and of itself, the proposal has decent properties to it, there are a number of concerns that remain both in terms of intentions and process that are need of resolution.

There is some question about how these talks came about and what the nature of them were. During the meeting, Councilmember Stephen Souza, who brought this item forward as an item submitted by a councilmember suggested that he came to Steve Gidaro to discuss selling the land to the city of Davis.

However, that is not the impression one gets from reading the Davis Enterprise article from July 29, 2007.
"As much as I was upset with him, initially, in the meetings that I have had, there have been good faith promises, and good faith discussions about preserving this land... So yes, he is interested in doing something good."
Councilmember Souza suggested that it was his idea to preserve the land, but if that's the case, why was Souza saying, "Just Go away"? There seems to be something going on here that is not being told. Also, why is Mr. Souza so angry with Mr. Gidaro? If it were not for Gidaro and his tactics, Mr. Souza would not have been elected to the city council. So there seems to be a bit of a disconnect here.

Next, Councilmember Souza suggested at the council meeting that it would be inappropriate for him as a councilmember to negotiate on behalf of the city. Yet, he is quoted in the paper as saying:
"I'm a shrewd negotiator... The bottom line is, my hope and my desire and my actions have always been to get this land as cheap as we can get it so we can actually get it."
If he was not involved in negotiations, why would he state that he's "a shrewd negotiatior?"

During the meeting, Councilmember Lamar Heystek pressed Councilmember Souza on a recent vote regarding ag mitigation. Specifically, Mr. Souza was asked if his intentions were to create open space, why he created an exemption in the ag mitigation ordinance for properties less than 40 acres, which specifically exempted the nearby Wild Horse Ranch property from adjacent mitigation. While adjacent mitigation on 80 acres, would not have consumed the entire Shriner's property, it would have set aside a swath for agricultural purposes at the expense of the developer, rather than at the expense of the city.

The question turned to why would the city council not have a developer as part of the condition of his development agreement, purchase the land for agricultural mitigation rather than force the city to do it as open space? Despite, repeated attempts by Councilmember Heystek, Mr. Souza never addressed this issue head-on and instead dodged the questions.

This led to a prolonged confrontation between the progressive minority of the council and the majority faction over the proper process. Councilmember Heystek and Mayor Sue Greenwald both insisted that if this is an item brought forward by a councilmember, the councilmember has the responsibility of getting grilled by his or her colleagues as though they were staff. If this is a problem, then perhaps the council ought to look at different approaches to items brought forward by council. Originally both the Mayor and Councilmember Heystek had wanted staff to do staff work on this.

Unfortunately, the attempts by Mayor Greenwald to sandbag this proposal ultimately muddied the water when she introduced the possibility that the Signature Properties, the next tract along Covell to the direct east of the Shriner's could be available free of charge to the city. However, in exchange for that land, the city would need to allow development on the Mace Curve on the south side of Covell. This would require around a 97-unit residential development. While this development would cost the city less in terms of money, it would require more housing, something that the Shriner's property proposal specifically avoids.

Councilmember Lamar Heystek suggested that the priority for the city should be the continuation of the process of turning the 700-acre Howatt Ranch into a sports-complex. There is a disadvantage that the ranch is the furthest away from the core of town of any of the three properties, however, the city currently owns that land and has been working for two years on developing it for the purpose of sports complexes. It is larger than the 100-acre suggestion on the Shriner's property.

Given that the city already owns the property and would not have to either purchase the land or allow for additional housing developments, Councilmember Heystek offered that this was perhaps the preferred option for the city despite the remote location of the property itself.

In the end, I agree most with Councilmember Heystek's position, although he ended up supporting the motion for the city staff to explore both the Shriner's and Signature Properties as possible alternative locations. His suggestion was that he thought in the end, the council and staff would still find the Howatt Ranch the best option. I am not less sure of that, and would have voted against a motion that authorizes staff to look into the two properties, both of which have fatal flaws in my book.

I agree with Mayor Greenwald's commitment to the urban limit line concept, however, in the end felt that she should not have brought the Signature Property into the discussion and that she too should have voted against the proposal.

At the end of the day, Councilmembers Souza and Saylor suggested that they had distrust for the intentions of Steve Gidaro. I find that an ironic statement in many ways. Not the least of which, that they may not have been elected without Gidaro and his dirty tricks, but also because at the end of the day, I must say I do not trust the intentions of either of these councilmembers. I would prefer that the council not help Mr. Gidaro unload the land that he has apparently determined he could not develop. And, I would prefer that the council, led by Souza and Saylor not make deals to exempt property of 40 acres or less from adjacent mitigation.

This deal, initiated at Souza and Saylor's behest casts severe doubt on the intentions with the Shriner's property because had they required adjacent mitigation for the Wild Horse Ranch property, it would have preserved a segment of the property that they are now looking to purchase. Except now it must be purchased at the expense of the city not the developer.

Finally, this entire discussion suggests that we ought to look more closely at Measure O and determine why the council has not been more vigilant about using Measure O to purchase and protect Open Space on the city periphery and agricultural land. Why is it that the will of the voters of Davis has been thwarted with regards to Measure O? Those are questions for another day, but they have to drive any discussion on open space and ag land preservation.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting