The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Commentary: Does Small or Large Sphere of Influence Best Protect Ag Land?

After watching the LAFCO meeting and discussion for awhile last night, I did something I do not do very often--I got up and spoke during public comment. I asked them the very basic question--what does inclusion in the Sphere of Influence afford the city of Davis? Does it provide any additional protection against growth? No one had an answer for that question.

Mayor Sue Greenwald in the comment section of the Vanguard last night said the following:
I have posed the following question to a number of planners, attorneys and a past SACOG chair: “If, hypothetically, the city of Davis were to want to grow as slowly as possible, would be want a larger or a smaller sphere of influence?” The answer I have gotten from all of the experts to whom I spoke was, “it is unclear”.
As I watched the meeting last night, I became swayed by the questions of Supervisor Matt Rexroad, one of the LAFCO members and by the comments of a member of the public, Robert Ramming. The conclusion that I have reached is the opposite one that the council reached.

Frankly I did not buy the answers that Councilmember Stephen Souza gave on the dais last night as a member of LAFCO. The idea that we can have an agricultural urban land use. The idea that we are going to use the Sphere of Influence land to create some kind of greenbelt and bike route. That Davis is unique, it is different, it does things differently, it breaks the mould.

If you look at the map, it does not look like such a set up. It looks like plots of land for development. Maybe not in Stephen Souza's mind. Maybe not this year. Maybe not five or even ten years from now, but it gets the ball rolling.

Talking to Supervisor Rexroad after the meeting, it was not his intention to really make a persuasive argument there. He told me he is a city-centric person and that what a city wants to do, he is pretty much going to let them do. At the same time, he does not seem comfortable with allowing the city of Davis to expand the sphere of influence.

Yeah I know there are a large amount of people that do not like Mr. Rexroad for a variety of reasons, but since he has been County Supervisor, he has been pretty consistent on his land use policies, and while I disagree with him on many things, in terms of land use in the county, there are not many votes that I disagree with.

Here is what I gleaned from last night's discussion. If Davis expands the Sphere of Influence, it could cause the city a lot of problems. First from a legality stand point, all land will have to be put into the general plan. If you go beyond what you need, that is actually a very costly prospect. Second, if you are an owner of the included property, you can force basically one way or another, your property to be included in the general plan discussion. That does not directly lead to development, but as Matt Rexroad pointed out, it begins a very long and arduous process.

Third, and here is the point that Robert Ramming raised last night--it does not protect your borders from the county. As Mr. Ramming pointed out, the county's general plan looked at several parcels around Davis' border, these properties were all in the Sphere of Influence. It is clear therefore, that inclusion in the Sphere of Influence offers little in the way of protection against county development. What saved Davis was the pass-through agreement and probably the cost to the county of gaining access to city services, not the Sphere of Influence.

Again, an unnatural expansion of the Sphere of Influence means that you are realistically talking about urban uses of that land in the next twenty year period. Mr. Souza was talking about greenbelts and bike routes as urban uses, but that's not what the map looks like. There is no belt around Davis with the city's proposal. It is a bunch of plots of land to west and a bunch to the east, with a gap in the middle.

Davis is going to change what an urban use is? That was Souza's argument is was downright unconvincing to anyone there.

Fact is, that I would not even have given this proposal the time of day except that Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek signed onto it. But on this issue, I think they were well-intentioned but ultimately flawed. From this discussion, I think inclusion in the Sphere of Influence, offers potentially unforeseen impacts of starting the development process for lands that this council likely does not support or foresee, but they have no control over future councils.

For this reason, I think that the best strategy is keep the Sphere of Influence as small as possible and to not include lands like Covell Village and the Nishe Property that you do not intend to develop if you are Sue Greenwald or Lamar Heystek.

Finally, I have a bone to pick with Katherine Hess, the City's Planning Director. At the beginning of the talk was an assessment of city's strengths and weaknesses. They go on to list, things like lack of a fourth fire station, not enough firefighting staff, not enough police staff, and my favorite, the budget is balanced with no foreseen problem. The last one is extremely problematic. The city is talking about having to have a string of new taxes to finance existing programs. Despite fancy budgeting assumptions, the future projections are a continued budget deficit due to structural issues with city pensions and salaries. The other points are issues of controversy, reasonable people disagree on the extent that those are needed or affordable. To present this as matter of fact was disingenuous at best. I was told that was all Katherine Hess' doing.

I think the Davis City Council got bad advice overall on how to proceed with the Sphere of Influence. I think they risk turning LAFCO on its head, doing the opposite of what was intentioned. Davis cannot be the first city that has thought of this, but the legal consequences and unintended consequences are immense.

At this point, I am thoroughly convinced that the opposite approach is best--keep the Sphere of Influence as small as possible and keep areas outside of the General Plan to the extent legally possible.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting