Vanguard Favors Citizen’s Initiative in Spring 2015 – It is understandable that the developers of Mace 200 wish to eliminate their upfront risk of fully entitling a business park project, only to have their time and money seemingly wasted if the voters oppose the measure at the ballot.
However, we believe that, while it is understandable that the developers wish to eliminate that risk, by doing so they increase the potential that the project is simple voted down by the voters. Any attempt to circumvent or seemingly circumvent Measure R will shift the discussion away from the need for the project and the merits of the project and toward a discussion on Measure R and questions as to why the developers feared following the current process.
Failure is not an option here. We have discussed for months the need for the city of Davis to generate more revenue so it can continue to provide high levels of city services without the continued need for tax increases.
As one person told the Vanguard, if the project fails, regardless of the reason, it will be increasingly difficult for there to be major investment in Davis. Major companies looking to invest in Ag-tech will look to Winters, Woodland, West Sacramento and the county. The region is watching this very closely.
I have heard this from enough different people with different stakes in the process to believe it to be true.
Pushing for a November vote is not the right approach. This is not going to be a slam dunk. Any peripheral development in Davis starts with at least 40 percent of the public automatically against it. That means there is a narrow margin for error and any development will have to capture a segment of the population that supports Measure R, supports slow growth policies, but is willing to consider a good development that can produce tax revenue.
Pushing something on the November ballot now would not be advantageous to any development. The council is about to go to recess, and by the time the public gets back it will be early September and we will have eight weeks to make the case.
Fortunately, there is a way that the developers can attain their goal of lower upfront risk without messing with the machinery of Measure R.
A citizen’s initiative. As staff notes, “The initiative process places certain levels of land use authority in the hands of the voters, including General Plan amendments and zoning amendments.”
In order to get an initiative on the ballot, it requires valid signatures of 10% (for general election) or 15% (for special election) of the number of voters according to the last reported voter registration.
The Measure P folks with very little money were able to get sufficient signatures to get Measure P on the ballot and then get Measure P passed.
With the resources that the developers have, spending a relatively small amount of money could yield the necessary signatures to put the measure on the ballot. The advantage of this approach is severalfold.
First, instead of being a top-down approach, a citizen’s initiative starts with a base of several thousand voters who thought enough of the project to sign their names to put it on the ballot.
Second, it would avoid the perception that they were tampering with or trying to do an end run around the Measure R vote.
Third, they would be able to get citizen support first, and then work out the final details of the project.
There is a downside risk for the city, as the city must “accept an affirmative vote outcome and cannot overturn it, even if the City determines that it may not be in the best interests of the community for fiscal or environmental or other reasons.” The city would also lack leverage for a Development Agreement.
In our view, this is the optimal scenario, however. We see a spring 2015 vote as being preferable. In fact, running the land use and the parcel tax campaign concurrently might work to both sides’ advantage. The city could argue that the parcel tax is the immediate revenue needed for road ways, but the business park is the long-term revenue needed to avoid future taxes.
By going in March, the developers could spend the fall doing outreach and collecting signatures. We would have time for a robust discussion and then, in the winter, the campaign would have two months to make its case to the voters.
Rushing to a November election is not a good alternative. Council would have to take action no later than July 15 to submit documents to the county by their July 16, 2014 deadline. The council would have to include the final ordinance amendment language, with CEQA exemption determination on the ordinance amendment as well as the final ballot question language.
Aside from timing, the largest disadvantage faced by the developers placing their modified Measure R process to the voters is, as the city puts it, “It is unknown whether the level of detail provided will be adequate to satisfy the voters to the point where they are comfortable voting in the affirmative.”
We bring up the debate from 2009 when Wildhorse Ranch was placed on the ballot in a similarly timed ballot initiative as this one would be. The late council action forced the council to have to go back and clarify some of the developer agreements with the community and that produced objections from opposition that council had failed to put key provisions within the Measure J language and therefore the baseline features were not enforced by voter action.
While many problems ultimately doomed that project, the lack of enforceability of the agreements made by the developers proved too be a huge burden that they were never able to overcome.
Staff notes, in addition, “The level of required CEQA review for the Measure R modification is likely an exemption under the ‘commons sense exemption’ rule, and the project entitlements themselves would later undergo full review under CEQA concurrent with the project entitlements.”
The bigger problem that they note is uncertainty for the developer would not be eliminated, as “legal challenges can still be sought and citizen referendums can still require a project to go before the voters after the entitlement process.”
In other words, it is entirely possible that a measure that circumvents Measure R could have to face the voters twice. We know from past experience that referendums require 10 percent of the total voters and must be submitted within 30 days of the actions. However, we also know that the water referendum was able to meet that threshold back in 2011.
The letter from the Northwest Quadrant development team is instructive here.
John Hodgson wrote, “Our suggested approach is to work collaboratively with the City, the County, the Davis community, UC Davis and interested technology companies to create a proposal that works well for everyone.”
He continues, “In our view, significant outreach to all parties within a reasonable period of time is needed to assure the best possible innovation Center, and we further believe that such an approach is consistent with the process the City initiated in its issuance of the RFEI.”
Mr. Hodgson indicated that, while he does not believe it is good public policy or strategically wise to place a ballot measure on the ballot at this time, if the city is inclined to consider that approach, they are requesting the same treatment as the Mace Innovation Proposal.
“We believe it would be in the best interest of the City to ensure both proposals are covered by any such Council action,” he wrote. “We respectfully request that our proposal likewise be advanced.”
“We do not, however, believe that placing any proposal on the ballot at this particular time is good public policy, particularly given the City’s very recent receipt of this information and lack of public input and consideration,” Mr. Hodgson wrote. “The purpose and intent of the RFEI process are sound, and we believe it would be unwise to abandon it. It is unclear what purpose the RFEI served if the City disregards those submittals and elects instead to immediately place a project on the ballot with little public discussion.
That is our view, as well. We think a citizen’s initiative, in March 2015, is the best approach and the safest way to ensure that the business park has a chance to succeed.
A rushed 3-2 vote by council in the next three weeks will surely doom any project for November. If failure is not an option, the council must hold strong in order to ensure success.
—David M. Greenwald reporting