When the Davis City Council voted 4-1 last month to reexamine the possibility of pausing the conservation easement process at Mace 391, one of the concerns that even proponents of the business park expressed was the possibility of harming the city’s reputation and thus prospects for getting future easements, and harming the ability of Yolo Land Trust (YLT) to do their work on behalf of communities like Davis.
A letter dated November 12, 2013, from the US Department of Agriculture’s State Conservationist Carlos Suarez, addressed to Mayor Joe Krovoza, indicates that the consequences would be serious and grave.
The letter notes that the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) has agreed to provide $1.125 million in grant funding to assist the Yolo Land Trust to purchase the conservation easement, and that the deadline to complete this transaction has been extended twice.
“If the City chooses to reconsider the merits of the Mace Curve project, it’s important to understand the potential consequences of returning the FRPP [Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program] grant funding,” Mr. Suarez writes. Should the City decide to no longer pursue the easement, NRCS would be required to return the $1.125 million back to the U.S. Treasury.”
“Unfortunately, this funding cannot be used for other NRCS conservation projects, nor can the funding be used for a modified conservation easement proposal under consideration now or in the future by the City or Yolo Land Trust,” he notes.
As YLT executive Director Michelle Clark indicated back in October, the biggest harm will be the assessment of the city and the YLT’s “closing efficiency.”
“Closing efficiency,” Mr. Suarez explains, “is a measure of a conservation partner’s ability to complete an easement in a timely manner. Closing efficiency can affect future fund allocations to California NRCS and its conservation partners.” He notes, “A good closing efficiency is also important for our conservation partners to remain competitive on future easement applications. Closing efficiency is one of several criteria considered by NRCS when ranking applications for funding.”
The message here is clear: “If the City decides to not protect Mace Curve/Leland Ranch with a conservation easement at this time and FRPP funds are returned, both the City and the Yolo Land Trust will continue to be eligible to apply for future FRPP grants – although each entity’s closing efficiency will be affected based on the guidelines set forth in FRPP policy.”
While some in the community may still wish to debate whether harming the city’s ability to gain future grants and easements is offset by the advantages of a business park, this clearly represents, in the city’s view and probably the council’s view as well, the final blow for Mace 391.
As staff notes, in June the staff presented the council with options to continue the grant process or suspend it for the consideration of other options. Staff notes, “No official proposal for swapping was being reviewed or processed and the discussion with the City Council was hypothetical and based on only the one unofficial proposal.”
At that time, the council voted 3-2 to continue with the easement process, with several councilmembers concerned about the process in which the proposal was laid out.
Since that time, staff notes that it “has been actively pursuing the closing of the grant with the City partners at the Yolo Land Trust and NRCS, including soliciting offers for resale of the Mace 391/Leland Ranch property. Consistent with other recent conservation projects, the City would sell the underlying fee-title of the protected farm land to a private buyer and join the Yolo Land Trust as a co-holder of the conservation easement.”
In October, by a 4-1 vote of council, staff was “directed by Council to review and provide options for the use of the city-owned Mace 391/Leland Ranch property. Thorough analysis was not achievable in the short timeframe, but staff has provided Council with several options.”
Staff had supported the idea of pausing the process back in June, but since that time the grant process has gone forward and pulling out now would appear to create substantial harm for future conservation efforts, for both the city and YLT.
Staff therefore writes, “Based on the letter received from USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and the negative implications based on Council direction at the City Council meeting on October 22, 2013 to ensure that the Yolo Land Trust was not harmed by rejecting the grant, staff recommends reaffirming acceptance of the NRCS grant and continue to work towards a resell of the property with a conservation easement by March 31, 2014.”
The Vanguard, based on the June 11, 2013, discussion, felt that a proper discussion of the proposal on its merits were undermined by serious concerns about process. We were hoping for a broader community discussion to pinpoint the community’s views on whether and where a business park might be built.
Given the lack of discussion on the merits back in June and the city’s precarious fiscal position, we believed that a discussion was appropriate.
Based on the additional information from the USDA, however, we concur with city staff that aborting the grant process would cause more harm than good for our community. We stand by the notions of open space and agricultural land protection.
City staff has faced considerable criticism for even considering a discussion of reconsidering the June 11 decision and, therefore, they deserve credit for shifting gears based on new information. In the past, city staff may well have dug in and held their position.
The next question is far more important: where do we go from here?
We do not believe that all has been lost. Since David Morris published his September article in the Vanguard on Mace 391, we have had several discussions, in council chambers, at the Innovation Parks Task Force meetings and on the Vanguard, about the need for a business park.
The original Innovation Parks Task Force suggested lands east of Mace (just to the west of Mace 391), as well as to the west of Sutter Davis Hospital, as potential spots for business park development.
While the community seemed split on where a business park should go, there may be an emerging consensus on the need for a business park in general.
There are key questions that must be addressed. Some of that discussion occurred a few weeks ago at the Innovation Parks public outreach meeting. However, the Vanguard at that time expressed concern that key segments of the community were not present and need to be for future discussions.
Any business park on peripheral lands, whether it be a small innovation center at Nishi, or a broader park at the other two locations, will require approval from the voters through Measure R. It therefore behooves the city and other stakeholders to present broad opportunities for inclusive public engagement.
In addition to where the park should go, another key question is the appropriate size of an innovation park.
Staff did not conduct a full analysis, but they offer a few sources of information. The first was the research conducted by UC Davis’s Studio 30, which was presented to the council a year ago. A second source of information comes from a Sacramento Business Journal article from last week, “Davis Leaders Look to Grow a Research Park.”
Both studies found a large diversity in the size, location, number of employees, and number of companies. Successful parks were as small as 110 acres in Livermore and 185 acres in Irvine and as large as 7000 acres in the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. That said, a number of parks were right around 200 acres.
The need for discussion is paramount and the city is clearly looking to move forward with the Innovation Task Force Process.
Mace 391 was unfortunately a polarizing proposal. There are several reasons for that, starting with the lack of public process and extending to the fact that a lot of work had been done to lock that land into conservation easement.
Some may argue that any process that looks to develop peripheral land will polarizing. We see the need to bring key groups and stakeholders into the process early so that we can, as a community, determine our critical needs here.
In the end, we may not all agree on where, when and what size a park should be, but by having an open and transparent process, hopefully we can avoid the pitfalls that befell Mace 391.
At the same time, we need to remember that, while the process of Mace 391 was far from ideal, in the end it opened the discussion of the need for economic development, and the need for a business park, forward to the point where we have had considerable discussion and perhaps even some consensus on the needs going forward.
—David M. Greenwald reporting