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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Guest Commentary: Defining Davis’ Slow Growth Vision

by Eileen M. Samitz


Historically, Davis has been a city proud and protective of its agricultural heritage, small town character and quality of life. In 1986, the citizens of Davis overwhelmingly passed Measure L, an advisory vote that mandated that Davis should only grow “as slow as legally possible”. Instead, developer-driven growth was allowed by pro-developer City Council majorities for over a decade. They approved one large residential development after another paving over 25% of the city in 12 years rather than the 23 years that was intended. An update of the 1987 General Plan emerged in 2001. It was drafted by the input of more than 200 citizen volunteers on 14 committees and was subjected to extensive public review. The new citizen-based 2001 General Plan reiterated the slow growth desire by Davis residents and strengthened agricultural protection language. It also reiterated that when housing is built at least 25% would be affordable housing. It also reminded the University of its promise to provide its share of housing for its students and faculty as it grew.

In 1998, tired of pro-developer Council majorities accelerating our growth, Davis voters elected Ken Wagstaff to join Julie Partansky and Stan Forbes on the city council, thereby creating a slow-growth majority. In 2000, when Sue Greenwald and Mike Harrington were elected to sustain a slow-growth council majority, Davis voters also approved the citizen-based Measure J ordinance. The Measure J ordinance empowered the citizens of Davis to decide if and when agricultural or open space land was to be developed. Measure J had strong developer opposition which poured an enormous amount of money into defeating the citizen-based measure, however Measure J passed. The new era that has evolved, enables the citizens to weigh in on the future of the city… however, developer pressure continues.

1% growth may sound slow, but is not slow growth

In more recent years, the public elected Don Saylor, Steve Souza and Ruth Asmundson, all of whom ran on “slow growth” platforms. Instead, they set out to justify a 1% housing growth rate. This seemingly innocuous 1% growth rate was based upon an impossible task assigned to city staff and the Bay Area Economics consulting firm of trying to define our “housing needs”. Since there are no standard formula’s for such a study the parameters were guided by Council. The genesis of this new 1% growth rate imposed by the current Council majority included Ruth Asmundson’s frustration expressed at Council meetings, that some of her children, and others could not afford to buy a home in Davis. Therefore, one of the goals for the “internal needs” study became that Davis should be able to build enough homes to provide a home for every child born since 18 years ago. This was deemed a “natural growth” factor. This invented factor wound up accounting for about half of the 1% growth rate. The 1% growth rate turns out to be at least 328 units per year, adding up to at least 2,300 units for every 7 year SACOG cycle. This means approximately 1 1/2 new Mace Ranch developments every 7 years. The astonishing part about this study is that no fiscal analysis was done to assess what the costs would be to the city and the citizens of Davis.

Sacramento Area Council of Government’s (SACOG) is a local entity whose primary job, is to try to do traffic planning regionally. They try to do this by dividing up projected population growth into the various SACOG cities (which includes Davis). An important concept to understand is that SACOG can not force cities to grow, but requests that cities plan for the number of units assigned. Sites that are designated for development towards the assigned growth cannot legally be forced to materialize, only to be planned. The SACOG number currently assigned to Davis between 2006 and 2013 is only 498 units. However, the Council majority of Asmundson, Souza and Saylor want Davis to grow by at least 2,300 units, which is almost five times faster than what is being asked of us. The language of Measure L is included in our General Plan to grow as slow as legally possible. Yet this new Council majority growth policy is clearly in the best interest of the developers, not Davis citizens.

Not only is the 1% growth policy inconsistent with the intentions of our slow growth citizen-based General Plan, but mandating this number of units encourages SACOG to increase Davis’ fair share assignment for future years. The Council majority never asked the citizens if they wanted this new growth rate added to the citizen-based General Plan, nor did they do any analysis of the impacts or the costs to the city and the citizens. Given that SACOG has asked us for only 498 units, that the current nationwide housing financial situation is in crisis, and that Spring Lake has 4,000 units under construction only 5 minutes north of Davis on Pole Line Road, why would we want to impose a mandatory growth rate contrary to Measure L?

The Covell Village site- a history of problems

Contrary to Kevin Wolf’s enthusiasm for another iteration of Covell Village, this parcel has inherent problems, which cannot be ignored and has a history to attest to these problems. The current developers had bought the huge parcel for only $3.1 million since the previous out of town developer was unable to resolve the traffic issues due to its access and egress problems. The land, located at Covell Blvd. and Pole Line Road, is primarily prime agricultural land, which is not within city boundaries but is Yolo County land. This means that the city would not get all of the property tax if it were developed but the tax would be split with the County. In 1998 the developers offered it as Covell Center, a 386-acre parcel at Covell Blvd. and Pole Lane Road with 688 housing units and a school site. When the school district clarified that it was not interested in the site due to the location, the developers quickly substituted a sports complex hoping to harness the sports community to pull the project politically. It did not take long for the citizens to assess the infeasibility of the sports complex fiscal report. The sports community could not sustain it, and Davis residents would wind up inheriting the financial albatross as well as the traffic, noise, night lighting as well as the other impacts from day and night tournaments.

In 2005, Covell Village was their new iteration but this time 1,864 units were being proposed on the handicapped parcel which would have been the largest residential development proposed in the history of Davis. The project was strongly supported by Council members Asmundson, Saylor and Souza despite their slow growth campaign promises. The citizens review of the EIR which revealed that the traffic would double on Covell Blvd. to 39,000 cars per day and on Pole line to 26,900 cars per day. The analysis found that Level of service “F” would result on many streets defined as “conditions that are intolerable for most drivers”. Traffic would back up onto neighborhood streets and cause associated safety and pollution issues especially for children, seniors and those with respiratory conditions.

The Covell Village EIR also revealed that the majority of the soil is prime ag land and the 2002 FEMA maps demonstrated that almost half of the 386 parcel was in the 100-year flood plain. New flood control legislature this year will now force cities and counties to cover a share of damage caused by flooding so it will cost Davis citizens when there is a flood event. It is possible to engineer control of a small flood plain area but it is not “smart planning” to deliberately build homes on more than 150 acres of flood plain. The Covell Village developers advertised that their project would bring Davis citizens affordable housing, however, the EIR revealed that the average house in Covell Village would cost $683,945. Another consequence would have been that we would prematurely exhaust our waste water treatment capacity. The current estimates for expanding the waste water treatment plant is over $150 million.... a cost which would be hoisted upon Davis residents. The project would also put enormous pressure upon our water resources. Our Council majority is pursuing surface water to fuel the growth train at an estimate of another $150 million also to be paid for by Davis residents. Fire and police demands would increase significantly also at a high cost (see Rich Rifkin’s Lexicon Artist article Weds. December 26, 2008 in The Davis Enterprise). Despite over 1,000 EIR comments from citizens ( including engineers and other planning professionals) opposing the adequacy of the EIR, the Council majority approved it and the developers will try to use that same EIR for any future project. Fortunately, on November 8, 2005, Covell Village was voted down 60:40, but now only 2 years later, the developers are back with a new proposal.

The Covell Village site – the latest “carrot”

As if there had never been a vote against development on the problematic site, the Covell Village partners are back with yet another project. The partners have taken on a new name -- North Davis Land Company, and have a new “carrot” – senior housing, for the entire 386 acre parcel (including more than 150 acres of flood plain). According to a letter they submitted to the General Plan Update Housing Element Committee they interviewed 75 senior community members who would like quality homes, neighborhood services, and health care delivery. The developers submitted a letter to the Housing Element Committee recently hoping to get the committee to consider only the entire 386 acres, presumably as a condition to offer the new senior housing project. For size perspective, University Retirement Center (which is a continuum) is approximately 11 acres, so asking for 386 acres is more than excessive. Considering that the 386 acres cost the developers only $3.1 million means that they could develop only a third (or less) of the land and leave the rest for agricultural mitigation, and still make an enormous profit. However, while it would be good to plan for more senior housing, clearly this is another “carrot” or lure consistent with a number of other offers in the past, all of which had many more problems than benefits. There are other site options within the city that could be used for senior housing in Davis that are not huge peripheral sites needing annexation and are not such a distance from other services. These sites will be listed for the public’s review and comment at this Thursday’s public open house workshop, Jan. 24, 2008 at 7:00 pm- 9:30 pm at Holmes Jr. High School Multi Purpose Room.

In this newest project proposal the developers are offering to have three phases of the project. The first phase would be approximately 130 acres for 800 units, the second phase of approximately 110 acres would be for 400 units, and the last phase would be approximately 140 acres for “urban reserve”. The last phase would be reserved for an undefined number of units. The developers are so enthusiastic that they bought 650 of acres to the north of the parcel to use for the required agricultural mitigation expanding the footprint of the project to 1,036 acres. Apparently, the developers must feel that the gamble is worth the potential multimillion dollar gain. Were it not for a long history of offers, promises and packaging that did not turn out to be what the public first thought, one might be attracted to this proposal without hesitation. The reality is that the developers know that the northern end 2/3’s of the 386 acre parcel should never be developed because of the enormous flood plain and the liability that comes with it. Instead of even attempting to reduce the footprint to avoid the flood plain and reduce the traffic impacts they return with simply a new design. Whether this proposal goes to the ballot for another Measure J vote will be decided by the new City Council to be elected this June which will include incumbents Sue Greenwald (who opposed Covell Village), and Don Saylor and Steve Souza (who supported Covell Village).

Hunt-Wesson/Lewis Cannery - A better site for housing

The 100-acre Hunt-Wesson Cannery site was abandoned approximately eight years ago. To expand the uses of the site the zoning was changed shortly after to allow high tech industrial. Despite political desire to redevelop it into high tech, no company was willing to invest in it presumably, because it was surrounded to the west and south by residential. Also, since Mace Ranch has more than 70 acres of vacant commercial land available closer to I-80, any high tech companies wanting to come to Davis would most likely prefer to locate there. In 2004 Lewis Planned Communities purchased the land and asked the city and residents what they would like to see redeveloped there. The desire for more housing for the workforce was a clear objective by the City Council, so the developers were encouraged to proceed with a proposal by the city. The Hunt-Wesson site is clearly a better alternative for housing than its neighboring Covell Village site, since it is within the city limits. This allows the city to get far more property tax rather than having to split the property taxes with the County as we would need to with Covell Village. It is already zoned for urban use and is an underutilized site. Also, the units proposed are far less in cost than what Covell Village was proposing to build.

The project design is not a finished product, however the developers have had a series of public meetings to get input from the public which they have utilized and integrated into the proposal. As a result the design has changed due to citizen and city staff input. Davis planning director Katherine Hess first hobbled the project by recommending that an industrial viability study be done, which the Housing Committee unanimously did not support. However, the City Council approved the study. She then wanted another access to the project than the single entrance originally proposed. The developers responded with a second access point. But then, Hess wanted access through Covell Village to Pole Line Road. Since Hess was the city planner in charge of the failed Covell Village project, it seems rather interesting that she appears to be trying to link the Hunt-Wesson site and the Measure J dependant Covell Village site. Although the historical Simmons property parcel on East Eighth Street has similar access issues, Hess does not seem to have the same concerns. The Hunt-Wesson site does not need Pole Line Road access and the project would fall into a timeline when the city would get fair share credit for the next SACOG cycle. Hopefully, there will not be an attempt to blackmail the public into a package deal of Covell Village and Hunt-Wesson because the public will clearly see through such a ploy. Finally, since this land is within the city boundaries and has urban zoning it is not obligated to provide 2:1 agriculture mitigation. Contrary to a claim in Kevin Wolf’s recent guest commentary, there was a misstatement that this project be being exempted from the General Plan agriculture mitigation policy.

UCD needs to build more on-campus student apartments

Another issue of concern that needs to be addressed is the lack of student high rise apartments on the core campus. The University of California statewide has the goal of providing 42% of student housing by 2012. So far UC has admitted that it is shy of this 42% goal and has plans for 38% UC student housing. Yet its largest campus, Davis, with over 5,000 acres has never provided the 25% of on campus student housing that it promised in its current Memorandum of Understanding to the city. The university could control the cost of rents for students and reduce traffic and travel costs but instead UCD continues to try to hoist the responsibility of its housing needs on the city as it expands its student population. Unlike the city, only UCD can legally dedicate its housing to UCD students, staff, and faculty and offer permanently affordability. UCD is willing to expand other dorms which are temporary housing for freshman, rather than helping to solve the housing problems by building subsidized on-campus student apartments. UCD is currently complaining that the city does not have enough apartments although they increase their student population one year and decrease it the next due to their budget changes. Logical planning would call for increasing their student population after UCD builds more student housing on-campus. An added benefit of more on–campus student housing is that it would free up more housing within the city for non-student Davis residents.

So what do we do now?

As a member of the General Plan Housing Element Update Committee I have felt privileged to serve and I have a great deal of regard for the 14 other members as well as staff who have been serving. I know that everyone has good intentions for our city’s future, however, we agree on some issues and disagree on others. Some members believe that if we build many housing units in Davis the cost of housing will drop. Historically, this result has not been the case in Davis when even when large numbers of units were being built, the housing prices continued to rise. This is a consequence of Davis being a desirable community to live in. If Davis is to remain a small, compact university town surrounded by agriculture as our General Plan states, then we need to acknowledge that there are limits as to how much growth Davis will have without losing our quality of life and agricultural land around us. Smart planning begins with choosing sites which make sense to build on and then makes the best use of the land that you sacrifice for that growth. We can increase our densities to a certain extent but there is a finite point when you start overpopulating an area. The goal is to have well planned densification which is a delicate balance of how much works well to have livability as well as compatibility. Otherwise you create an inner city atmosphere with more crime and stress, rather than a community which is a good place to live. Furthermore, it is important to recognize that you can’t build your way out of city fiscal problems which only becomes exacerbated by adding much more residential growth. Given that the housing market is currently undergoing a fiscal crisis, and that SACOG has assigned only 498 units for Davis, the time for us to slow our growth is now.

In summary, none of the peripheral sites should be approved now, and at best, only the Hunt-Wesson/Lewis Cannery site should be planned to start no sooner then 2011 to assure that Davis will get SACOG fair share housing credit. Given the timelines we are facing, this can happen if the citizens of Davis make clear their desire to oppose and demand the repeal of the 1% growth rate imposed by the current Council majority. Notably, the 386-acre Covell Village site should not be developed now and the northern 2/3’s of this parcel should never be developed in the future because of the huge flood plain and its risks and liability to the city and residents. If this parcel was ever to be developed in the future, the northern 2/3’s of the 386-acre parcel should instead be used to fulfill the 2:1 agricultural mitigation requirement for a use such as organic farms, which would be compatible and would endure a flood event better than a massive residential tract. The Nishi property should not be developed either, due to the access issues that can never be resolved unless the University agreed to be the only access and egress. Otherwise the development of Nishi would be a disaster for Davis because of untenable traffic problems pouring traffic into the downtown at Richards Boulevard with no where to go. Finally, the university needs to provide more on-campus housing to help accommodate its own growth.

Now is the time to make it clear that it is the citizens of Davis, not the developers, who will plan future of their city.

Thank you for your time and please come to the General Plan Housing Element Update this Thursday to give your input at the open house workshop at 7pm at Holmes Junior High School at 1220 Drexel Drive in the Multi Purpose Room. This is such an important meeting and we need your input to help guide the future of Davis.

-Eileen M. Samitz, General Plan Housing Element Update Committee member