The Planning Commission this evening is scheduled to make a recommendation as to whether the Mace Ranch Innovation Center Final Environmental Impact Report document adequately analyzes “the potential environmental impacts of the project for the purposes of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act], with the project description as set forth in the EIR.”
Staff is recommending certification with a clarification “that the environmentally superior alternative is the mixed-use alternative assuming the addition of a legally enforceable mechanism to ensure that at least 60 percent of the on-site units would be occupied by at least one MRIC employee can be provided.”
Back in early 2016, the council had rejected a request to make the mixed-use alternative the preferred option and, shortly thereafter, the MRIC’s applicant suspended but did not withdraw their application.
This is the second meeting before the Planning Commission in consideration of certification of the Final EIR for MRIC. It follows a May 24 meeting where staff presented the item and received feedback and questions from the commission and public.
Staff notes that this action “is limited to certification of the FEIR and is not an action on or approval of the project.”
The staff report explains that the question before the commission “is whether or not the EIR document, as prepared by the City, provides adequate analysis to certify under CEQA based on the project description contained in the EIR document. A Planning Commission recommendation focused on the adequacy of the EIR document has been requested by the City Council.”
Staff believes that, while the approach here is “unusual,” it is permissible under CEQA. They write, “The requested certification of the EIR will require the City Council to make the findings and determinations required under CEQA Guidelines Sections 15090 (Certification of the EIR), but the findings and determinations under CEQA Guidelines Sections 15091 (Findings for Significant Effects), 15092 (Project Approval), and 15093 (Statement of Overriding Considerations) will not be made until an action on the project is before the Council.”
The application requested certification in a letter dated October 5 and council on February 21 voted to “direct staff to initiate the EIR certification process and require future public hearings at the Planning Commission and City Council.”
Changes to the project or its circumstances following the certification would potentially “trigger a ‘subsequent’ EIR, a ‘supplement’ to the prior EIR, or an ‘addendum’ to the prior EIR. This would be determined based on the facts at the time and has been explicitly acknowledged by the applicant.”
Further, staff writes, “The city would have no ‘prejudice’ under CEQA. This conclusion has been reached in consultation with the City Attorney and is consistent with the legal analysis presented to the City Council at the February 21, 2017 meeting wherein the Council directed staff to undertake the EIR certification hearing process independent from project action.”
Staff concludes, “After review and consideration of the input above, staff believes that the EIR document prepared by the City is sufficient under CEQA and recommends the Planning Commission provide a recommendation to the City Council on the adequacy of the document per the recommendation as set forth on page one of this report.”
Burrowing Owl Issue
Alan Pryor made a comment to the commission that the burrowing owl study was done at the wrong time of the year.
In a comment on the Vanguard he noted that “the burrowing owl surveys were not conducted during times when burrowing owls would reasonably be expected to be present. Burrowing owls in California are most active and most visible during breeding season which generally runs from February 1 through August 31. California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Staff Report on Burrowing Owl mitigation guidelines 2012 provides that the surveys optimally should occur between April 15 and July 15, the peak of the breeding season, when burrowing owls are most detectable. Several researches recommend three or more surveys during daylight hours. The surveys performed for the MRIC project were conducted in October and December of 2014, out of the breeding season and were thus insufficient. Perhaps, not surprisingly, no owls were sighted.”
However, staff responded that the California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB) “was queried again to determine if any new records have been added as of July 2017.” They found, “Although CNDDB has records of burrowing owls near the project site prior to 2008, records of burrowing owl near the project site have not been documented in the CNDDB since that time.”
According to the staff report, 19 surveys were conducted on the project site, five of which were surveys of the entire site between October 2014 and November 2015, and these include surveys in every month of the year. These include a May 19, 2015, and September 11, 2015, survey of the entire site.
They write, “Burrowing owls or burrowing owl signs (pellets, feathers, whitewash, etc.) were not observed on the MRIC property during any of the above surveys. The recent observations provided by commenters on the EIR indicate that several historic records remain active.”
Mitigation measures require the applicant comply with the following: “(1) conducting surveys consistent with the 2012 Staff Report to determine whether burrowing owls are occupying the site prior to each phase of the project, and, if active dens are found within the project area, (2) implementing avoidance, minimization and, if the project could impact active dens, mitigation, consistent with the 2012 Staff Report.”
The issue of certification absent an active project remains controversial.
Critics have argued, “The project has not been defined therefore the MRIC EIR should not be certified. It would be irresponsible for the City to grant a certified EIR to a ‘no project’ since we do not even know what the project is. This is of great concern since MRIC promised a ‘commercial-only’ project from the beginning. However, later on the Ramos developers advocated for a mixed-use project to add 850 residential units on the edge of town to be a ‘city within a city’ with all of the added long-term costs including infrastructure and city services.”
Further, they claim that the MRIC EIR is flawed, “The MRIC makes false assumptions including that at least 60% of the 850 residential units of their mixed-use alternative would be occupied by at least one MRIC employee (which cannot be legally implemented) in order for the traffic and circulation assumptions to be made.”
Third, they argue, “MRIC in its ‘mixed-use’ alternative proposal wants its 850 residential units to be ‘vertical mixed-use’ which is a flawed City zoning category which would exempt the Ramos developers from including any affordable housing PLUS none of these 850 housing units would count toward the City of Davis 1% annual growth cap. So, thousands more new residents would not even be counted as part of Davis’ growth on top of getting no affordable housing.”
Finally, they add that “one of the most serious issues is that the City would be compromising the welfare of the community by surrendering its leverage to negotiate with the Ramos developers if the City was to grant certification of the MRIC EIR now. The City needs to retain negotiating power to achieve the design, sustainability features, and timelines on if and when a project was ever to move forward for a vote by Davis citizens.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting