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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Why Do We Need a New General Plan?

The Davis City Council last night began to embark upon their discussion of how the General Plan update process should proceed. There was considerable discussion as to whether it should even go forward at this point given the current economic situation, given the costs of proceeding, and given the uncertainty of our times.

The consistent question that arises and is never really answered by those councilmembers who support going forward with an update is why we need to do so now, rather than take the Housing Element that has already been adopted and perhaps modifying the plan with more modern and general principles of sustainability.

There is considerable difference as to how the council should proceed. Some such as Councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek want to hold off on any major changes right now. Others such as Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor believe that this current General Plan no longer can guide us and we now need a new one. Others such Mayor Ruth Asmundson and Councilmember Stephen Souza seem to want some sort of middle ground where there is some update, but on the cheap and perhaps not full blown.

Sue Greenwald cited the strength of the current General Plan and the budget situation as reasons not to go forward with a full-scale General Plan update process at this time.
“Personally I think there’s no reason to spent 1-2 million dollars that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when the wheel that we already have is a Michelin. Yes it would cost 1-3 million dollars to do a comprehensive General Plan. Sometimes discretion is the better form of valor.”
Councilmember Greenwald expressed concern about the livability of this region in the future. She also demonstrated support for the work that has already been done and the fact that this General Plan is a model for other communities.
“We have an extremely high quality advance General Plan, we don’t need a new General Plan right now. Our General Plan is what other cities are trying to do. When you hear other cities are doing a General Plan, they are trying to do one similar to the one that we have now.”
The bottom line is costs:
“We can save 1 to 3 million dollars by re-adopting our current plan in essentially similar form. The Housing Element Update which is our legal requirement is good until 2013.”
As a result, she is looking at a more basic General Plan process—one that keeps what we have and is good, and updates where it is needed.
“We might want to add some sustainability items, but we might want to wait on that because the state is talking about how they want to incorporate sustainability into our General Plan.

We can amend our General Plan, four times a year with as many amendments as we want. We can work on a sustainability section now. We already have a housing element which is good through 2013.”
The uncertainty is also part of what drives the more cautious approach:
“It’s very important for us to scale this back. I was always against doing a full scale General Plan, but when the council majority decided to go forward with it, it was before the economic collapse. Many economists are debating whether we are going to have a recession that takes three or four years to really work our way out of or whether it’s going to be a Japan style twenty year recession where housing prices fell fifty percent and never got back to where they had been before…”
Given the current fiscal situation, we need to save whatever money we can.
“We’ve already set aside $257,000 just this year for this type of visioning process. We don’t have this type of money. Look at the budget deficits you’re going to see next week. I implore you, do not go forward with a comprehensive General Plan that we cannot afford to do and we do not need.”
Councilmember Stephen Souza spoke of several of the past General Plans and the process involved in developing them. He said that for him he didn’t want the extremely short, ten month process, but he also didn’t want the 215-member, 14 committee, six year process.
“As for the question raised by several in the community and the one councilmember that has spoken so far, why should we do this? Is there something broke that we need to fix here? I would say I have seen planning over the term that I have been on the council in a haphazard fashion. It’s not coordinate, there’s no vision of where it’s coming from, it’s project-by-project. I think that cuts into a vision I want to see in my community, inevitably.”
Councilmember Souza is looking for a vision that would describe what and where we will be within the parameters of the city of Davis. Is our “urban form” what we see now and will we simply redevelop it or is it something different?
“To should we. I concur, I really don’t want to spend any money right now. I want to save that money because I don’t know what’s going to hit us in the next two years. But I don’t want to stop what we’ve begun. If there’s some way we can move forward without moving forward as fast, on a plan. If there’s something we can do in the interim that gives us some guidance as to where we may eventually go.

Maybe it’s just describing that vision of what we will become in 2035 and 2050. Maybe we go that step, we don’t do a full-blown analysis, revision, and update. And I do agree that I don’t think… I think after looking at all these plans, I like this one [current General Plan].

I like it, but it’s confusing and there’s areas that need better understanding for not the folks who read this all the time who can go through it all the time… but for the basic citizen of the community to be able to understand this document a little more.”
Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor began by describing his involvement in the previous process. He suggested that contrary to popular belief, most of the people involvement played a small role. His own was played on committee that completed its work seven years prior to the final adoptions of the General Plan in 2001. From that standpoint our General Plan is not merely eight years old, but entire sections are actually closer to 15-years-old and thus badly in need of update.

He continued arguing that the current plan is in effect, obsolete:
“I submit in many respects our current General Plan is not guiding our actions. Any action that we need decision that we take, does in fact require a General Plan amendment. In fact, we do bundle them up and package them in one of these four General Plan amendments that happen each year. Virtually any project that comes forward, we’re looking at changing the General Plan.”
He then disparages the current General Plan:
“I think the General Plan is as our staff has said, long and unfocused. It is not clear in its guidance. It does not provide for reliable projects for financial and infrastructure planning. It requires us to have constitutional crisis over any project that comes before us. It has a lack of coordination with UC Davis plans and is not in sync with the state requirements, some of them are still shaping on climate change, water supply, environmental justice and other issues.”
From this perspective, he suggests we have a need to take a look at it.
“My interest in terms of what should it contain and achieve, I would dearly love for us to have a process… that allows our community members to be able to coalesce around some sort of shared vision on what we want our community to be on about 2035. The reason to take a date like that is that it’s far enough out that we are not necessarily talking about what we do with some intersection or some empty lot, we’re talking about a vision. That vision should guide what actions follow and flow from it.

I would like for the plan that we have to constitute a framework for us so that when we have decisions on individual projects or proposals that we can compare them against something rather than the individual opinions of the people who happen to be in the room at the time.”
He went on to point out the current General Plan does not address issues like climate change, sustainability, economic development, infrastructure needs, and other issues of finance. He spoke of the need to update our transportation circulation system.
“Our street system is sort of designed for something that doesn’t exist anymore. In a lot of ways our streets are designed for a town that existed in 1965 and we’ve already outgrown it and we should take a look. ”
Later the Mayor Pro Tem would take issue with the suggestion that this comment refers to the need for widening the roadways in Davis.
“In terms of the financing, nobody can argue that we’re in a good time to do this. But we’re not planning for this year or the year after, we really are thinking about visioning for a longer term.”
He wants the city to look for sources of funding and is willing to consider some sort of phased approach.

Councilmember Lamar Heystek was very cautious about the need to do this and urge us to be careful in proceeding.
“I think we need to be careful about our process that leads us to throw the baby out with the bath water. We’ve heard a number of comments made about our General Plan—some good and some not entirely positive. But, if this current General Plan is the road map of our community I ask anyone to tell us how this roadmap for our community, how has this road map let us astray. What is it about Davis now that we think this General Plan has led us to that we need to change?”
He agrees that there needs to be actualization of this plan. However, he challenged people to find what they disagreed with with regards to the current General Plan.
“If you find something objectionable please tell us and tell us how we should change it.”
For him therefore, it is unclear why we need to spend money for something that does not appear to be broken.
“It is unclear to me why we should be spending millions of dollar on a[n updated] document or taking this document and possibly creating an entirely different one if we can’t make the case that this document has led us astray.”
Councilmember Heystek argued that if there are weaknesses and omissions within the current General Plan, perhaps we needed staff to find ways to address those needs for less than one million dollars.
“Unless someone points out to me what’s wrong with this plan, I’m not inclined to start a new process… If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
He also wants to look at other aspects of our General Plan aside from land use. He wants to think about where this falls within our priorities. His major concern is with the price tag and the need to change this project.

Mayor Ruth Asmundson did not want the finances of this plan to prevent the process from going forward.
“We talk about maybe this is not the right time to start this process because it’s expensive. But I think what we need to recognize is that we’re not planning for the today, but we’re planning for the future. We should be responding for future plans for what we have right now. It has to be a process that spans so many years.

We don’t really know what that future will bring, but what we need to look at is what do we want to see Davis in 2035.”
The Mayor wants to have a vision, we all have different ideas of what is best for Davis, and wants to start with a positive process where we look at what we want rather than what we don’t want. We need to have strong public engagement.

She is concerned a bit with the three million dollar cost and questioned how much input we need and how long a process this should.
“I think most of the three million (dollar) cost is because of the long process, long public engagement that is going to happen. I think we need to find a hybrid—I don’t want it too short that we are shortchanging our process, I don’t want to have that. If we’re going to have a new General Plan or an updated General Plan it has to be realistic and pragmatic that we can really use rather than just having a nice product that will go on the shelf.”
She thinks that two years is too short. She’s looking at two to five years with five years being too long. In terms of the cost, she wants to do it for less than a million but recognizes the costs of the EIR. She wants to possibly have a “cheaper” environmental impact report. She also wants to explore alternative funding options like SACOG.
“If the cost is what’s prohibiting us, then I know that we can get the funding grant from somewhere else. But that shouldn’t be the limiting factor for us in this study. I think we need to look at what we want and then look at the cost. My personal preference is I don’t want to start with the cost. ”
Finally, she feels that since the issue of growth is a divisive issue, we should not look at growth but rather what we want in Davis. According to the Mayor, growth has to happen, but how do we get to that.
“It shouldn’t be the growth that leads us to where we want to go. So I want growth to be used secondarily not what’s leading us.”

The question I came in with is why we need to do this now. What I heard at the meeting, even from those who argued that we did need this now, was really no rationale for urgent and immediate action. I heard reasoning of why things need to be updated on a variety of fronts. I heard reasoning of why we need at some point to come up with a shared vision for the future of Davis. What I did not hear is a reason why this needs to begin today or next year, rather than in 2013 when the Housing Element expires. What I did not hear is a reason we cannot revise the current General Plan to include elements of sustainability and climate change that we seem concerned about to go along with the Housing Element Process.

The bottom line is I simply do not see the need to go forward with this today when we are facing down a budget deficit that will run in the millions, when we have adequate housing to fill our needs frankly for the next ten years let alone five, when the market is crunched, the state and country is in crisis, and we have no idea what tomorrow let alone next year will look like. There was nothing said last night that changes that viewpoint.

As Councilmember Sue Greenwald wrote on the Vanguard last week:
"This is a total waste of money, which I have been opposing from the start. Our current general plan is very good, and way ahead of its times. The housing element update can be done independently. The plan can be amended quarterly.

There is no way we have the money for this exercise. I can only imagine that growth agendas are driving it."
Councilmember Greenwald is exactly right. The city's current budget appears to have a deficit of upwards of $5 million for the fiscal year 2010-11. And yet the re-drafting of the general plan will cost into the millions.

According to the city staff report:
"Total costs for updating the City's General Plan could range from approximately $1 million to $3 million over two to four years, depending on the work program selected."
We might be able to justify the cost if there was a pressing need to update the general plan. During the course of the meeting, again, I saw rationale for us to update portions of the General Plan. What I did not see was either rationale for the scope that Mayor Pro Tem Don Saylor suggested or to do it today.

As Councilmember Greenwald has put it, the current General Plan is a sound plan which was way ahead of its time. There is no need for wholesale changes.
"We can just take the existing plan with the new housing element, make a couple of changes (we do that regularly anyway), and adopt it as our new plan."
Councilmember Lamar Heystek concured. He told the Vanguard prior to the meeting:
"It is not clear to me, especially in light of the millions of dollars in budget cuts we'll have to make over the next few years, why we should be spending millions in taxpayer dollars redoing what the taxpayers themselves spent years doing just a short time ago. My priority is to implement what we have, not reinvent the wheel."
What is clear is that our citizen-based General Plan is now under attack by the forces that are demanding more growth. Our current citizen-based 2001 General Plan is a core document which speaks to a long term vision of the future of Davis. Many spent years working on this document, why throw it out now?

Moreover, they are pressing for a twenty-five year general plan that looks out to 2035 or even 2050. 2050? That is forty years. But by developing a plan that far out, what will happen is that sites that would never be considered in the next ten years, will be given life and consideration when we look forty years out. Such a document is growth inducing.

This is not the time to spend money on this sort of project. We do not need to do it right now. We have serious problems facing us including a budget deficit, a structural deficit, and a pension and compensation system that is out of whack and in need of restructuring.

There are serious questions about our water supply and even more questions about the cost of developing alternative sources for water which will threaten to drive the average person for their homes.

It is ironic that so many talk about Davis' lack of growth policies as leading to the increase of cost of housing, the pricing out of the middle class, and yet if we continue to grow as we have, we will be forced to develop a water project that will do exactly that--force out existing residents who cannot afford the $200 per month additional cost for water.

In short, there is no justification for updating the General Plan right now. The housing market has sapped the demand for new housing. The council has already approved enough housing over the next five years to meet our RHNA requirements. And most of all, there is no fiscal justification for a project that runs in the millions and gives us so little in return.

And yet as we stand here today, that is exactly what this council is poised to do. There appears to be a majority in favor of some sort of process. They may not necessarily agree on what that process should be, with Councilmember Souza seeming to want a much more modest process than the seeming complete revision that Mayor Pro Tem Saylor wants.

The question I think is what do the citizens of Davis want. It is your city. What do you want to see?

---David M. Greenwald reporting