Should the City Develop on Greenbelts?


A little over a week ago, the Davis Planning Commission voted 3-2 to permit a developer to develop a 0.75 acre plot of land, currently designated as a greenbelt – although it is not the traditional configuration of a greenbelt lined with trees and is without the grassland open space.

The property is on Covell Blvd. within Wildhorse, between Sargent Court on the east and Whistler Court on the west with Moore Boulevard to the north.

As city staff wrote, “The project is subject to a land transaction between the City and applicant. This may result in the elimination of the easterly Neighborhood Greenbelt to accommodate the proposed residential project. The reconfigured property will result in an 8-unit subdivision with a net gain of 7 units. The existing residence on the property would be demolished.”

Staff notes that, in 2009, the city approved a four-unit development on the site, requiring a land transaction between the city and the property owners for the westerly greenbelt land.

Staff writes, “The current request is subject to the City Council approval of a new land transaction between the City and the development team, which would include re-visit of the previous agreement as well. Approval of this land use entitlement request is subject to Council action on the pending land transaction.”

They add, “The current proposal would change the easterly greenbelt to Residential Low Density designation in order to allow the proposed eight-lot residential subdivision. This land use designation change to accommodate the proposed project does not include the land transaction negotiation. However, approval of this land use change request is subject to the City Council approval of the land transaction, a separate action.”

At the Planning Commission meeting, about a dozen neighbors objected to the fact that the city would sell a greenbelt for development.

One of those neighbors is Claudia Morain, formerly a spokesperson for UC Davis. In an op-ed this week, she wrote, “The city of Davis, perhaps for the first time, is considering selling a greenbelt to a private developer.”

There were two proposals to subdivide a piece of property in Wildhorse that is now occupied by a single-family home – albeit one that is abandoned. Ms. Morain notes, “Both plans would annex the greenbelt that surrounds the property on three sides and convert this public open space into eight private back yards.”

“Many in Davis are deeply concerned about the proposals and the precedent they would set,” she wrote. “About 15 of us from the immediate neighborhood and beyond attended the hearing. I had one main question: Does Davis have a policy governing the sale of greenbelts to developers?”

Ms. Morain noted that Cheryl Essex, one of the planning commissioners, stated, “There is no policy governing the sale of greenbelts in Davis, because Davis does not sell its greenbelts!”

She added that they are not NIMBY’s, each one “voiced our support for increased housing density on this site.” The original plan, in 2009, only sought to redevelop the parcel where the existing home was on. The new plan calls for additional units in the area that is now considered the greenbelt.

Ms. Morain writes, “We just don’t think the greenbelts should be used for new housing.”

“The city is in closed negotiations with the developer, who apparently purchased the privately held land last fall, to set a price for the greenbelt,” she writes. “Planning Commission staff estimate that it costs the city about $500 a year to maintain the greenbelt that Paso Fino’s developers are negotiating to buy. If this greenbelt is too costly to maintain, I for one would like to hear other ideas for using the land.”

She continues, “It would be a wonderful community garden for the Wildhorse Homeowners Association to operate. Already, the mature walnut trees on the eastern leg of the greenbelt over my back fence, one of the last surviving stretches of the orchards that once covered the area, yield a bounty of nuts every fall. It would make a great dog park, too. Depending on the sales price, perhaps neighbors could pool their money and try to buy it. “

“Or there is another alternative: The City Council can revive the plan it approved for this piece of property back in 2009,” she writes.”That plan, which also was approved by the Planning Commission, would build four houses on the site. It would not just preserve the greenbelt. It would augment it with a patch of the private land that holds some of Yolo County’s oldest and tallest trees, trees that the Davis Tree Commission believes are irreplaceable. One, a majestic canary pine, is a nesting site for a Swainson’s hawk. Her flights to and from her nest captivate bird lovers throughout Yolo County.”

She notes that, at the hearing, developer Dave Taormino was asked whether the 2009 plan would “pencil out” for him: “Could he build four Paso Fino houses, leave the greenbelt alone, save the big trees — and still turn a profit?” She writes, “He said that he could.”

She added, “The 2009 plan was not among the proposals before the Planning Commission on May 29. Commissioners had just the developer’s two greenbelt-annexing proposals to choose between. That’s too bad. Everyone in Davis who treasures the city’s public open spaces has a stake in the fate of this parcel. I urge people to call their council members and ask them to revive the 2009 plan.”

She concluded, “But I’m afraid that’s not enough. We also need a policy in place to guide city officials the next time a developer is interested in annexing a greenbelt.”

There are a number of questions about this land transaction and the Vanguard has filed a public records request to find answers to that and other questions. There is some thought that this may be fast-tracked for council consideration this month.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. SODA

    Good coverage; I know the neighbors and tree folks have been actively concerned about this change of original plans. Why is the 2009 plan not being honored? It seems a more than rare occurrence that a plan is approved, then later on sometimes with a new developer that has bought the original developer’s land, a new plan is proposed., e.g., when one foot has opened the door… it necessary to demolish the house?

  2. Ryan Kelly

    As I have responded before, I don’t consider this a “green belt.” The purpose of the undeveloped land was to buffer the Haussler home from the Wildhorse development and no longer needed now the home has been sold. The City does not have the money and resources to maintain a piece of land that serves no public purpose. It sounds like they are talking about only the Eastern side and leaving the bike path cut through to Covell. The large trees are on the Haussler property per your graphic. This is purely about Claudia not wanting someone’s backyard to be over her fence. She would rather it remain undeveloped land maintained by the City.

    1. Don Shor

      The city owns numerous properties like this that function as open space, wildlife habitat, buffers, and which protect old valuable trees. Claudia Morain is certainly not the only person who is concerned about this proposal, and certainly not the only one concerned about the precedent it sets and the destruction of the Canary Island pines.

    2. Barack Palin

      These are two greenbelts and the city itself is calling them two greenbelts. Would you like to buy a house that you had to pay a higher premium for because they were located next to a park or on a greenbelt thinking that those areas would always stay that way just to have the city sell them off to a contractor for dense housing infill? If this is allowed to go through than any park or greenbelt that’s treasured by local neighbors could be sold off to contracors. Would anyone want their local park or greenbelt sold off for development?

        1. Tia Will

          Or more of developers changing the plans after agreement has already been achieved in order to maximize profit over other considerations of value.

          All depends on your perspective.

        2. Don Shor

          It’s the developer that is “injecting the uncertainty.” There was a development agreement that permitted four houses, preserved the large trees, and retained the open space. He’s the one who wants to change that agreement to build more houses. How in any rational sense is this “more of government injecting uncertainty into everyones’ economic decisions”?

  3. Tia Will

    Ryan Kelly

    The issue here is not whether you consider it to be a greenbelt, but whether the city considers it to be a greenbelt. It would appear from the reporting that this is the designation. If this is correct then
    I agree with Don. This most assuredly is not “purely about Claudia not wanting…..”. For me this is about balancing the value of open space and established trees to the community vs the profit of the developer. It would seem that there already is, in existence, a plan that would provide that balance by securing a profit for the developer ( in his own words ) while maintaining the open space for all of those, not just Claudia, who are concerned about the City
    effectively changing the destination of a space from greenbelt to developer ready.

  4. Barack Palin

    As I understand it there are not only 8 houses planned but also 4 in-law units and the site would be difficult for emegency vehicles and delivery trucks to enter and exit. I agree with the local residents, stick to the original 4 house plan and don’t over densify while saving the greenbelts and trees.

  5. Ryan Kelly

    It doesn’t make sense for the City to maintain this small strip of land. The buffer is no longer needed to shield the home from the encroachment of the Wildhorse development. The West side I can see, with its bike path, not the East side. Why should we have to pay to maintain this buffer when its purpose is no longer required?

    1. Barack Palin

      How about this new dense development that will encroach on the existing homeowner’s properties and kill off many established trees? Do they not count? The project is too much for the small area.

      “Commissioner Cheryl Essex criticized the street plan, saying delivery trucks would have to back out and vehicles would have conflicts with pedestrians and bicyclists using the street as a shared path.”

    2. Tia Will

      “Why should we have to pay to maintain this buffer when its purpose is no longer required?”

      You are choosing to focus on only one purpose. Even if this were to have been the original stated purpose, that does not mean that it is the only valid purpose for its maintenance. For me, the existence of the open space and preservation of the mature trees are enough “purpose” to promote leaving it as is.

  6. Frankly

    This seems to bring up a more general indication of some schizophrenia with respect to the vision for Davis relative to housing and open space.

    My preference is a less dense city in general. But instead of the typical urban sprawl where all residential neighborhoods are single family, we should have a good mix of single family with some reasonable setbacks and privacy, and well designed high-density housing… but with copious public accessible open space, ag lots and wildlife habitat. You see this type of design to some degree in the award-winning village homes.

    Similarly for peripheral commercial development, I would prefer that we NOT push density so much as a smart design that incorporates different open-space in and among the structures.

    When I travel throughout the country I am not made happy in places with high density and little open-space. The places that are the most pleasing are those that smartly incorporate buffers of undeveloped land… parks, wide boulevards and walkways, greenbelts, natural habitat, small ag parcels.

    But for some reasons the open space–focused Davis residents think the way to go is to develop building close together on every bit of land to prevent any peripheral development. I don’t think this is well thought through at all.

    1. Alan Miller

      I agree with this general vision. “well thought out”? It is thought out via J/R, which rules this town as an iron fist superhero, stamping out peripheral development. “well thought out”? Thinking about development patterns? Careful, Frank Lee, you may become a government planner.

  7. Don Shor

    This proposal has raised a couple of serious issues.

    Development agreements are worthless.

    A development agreement represents a balance of interests being considered. Increasing the value of the property by developing it, providing housing on infill sites, conserving open space at neighborhood scale, protecting habitat, preserving old trees. Those were all considerations in the original development agreement for the site.

    The only interested party that benefits from the proposed change to the 2009 development agreement is the land developer. This does not create a significant number of new housing units in the range that Davis needs. It destroys open space and mature trees. It obviously negates the interests of the neighbors.
    Staff, once again, appears willing to bend to the desires of the developer. It isn’t uncommon for staff to accede to these types of proposals. But what is unique here, as far as I know, is the sale of city-owned greenbelt property for the purpose of housing development.

    Our tree protection practices are woefully inadequate.

    The Canary Island pines on this site are sixty-plus years old, very healthy, and could easily live for decades longer. The mitigation for a proposal like this usually involves the developer planting, or paying to plant, some specific number of trees elsewhere in Davis. But these trees have an intrinsic value, which an independent arborist could readily confirm, of tens of thousands of dollars. The city’s arborist cannot really make this determination, because he is, unfortunately, subject to pressure from city staff. So I urge the homeowners to hire a consulting arborist and get an ISA-based evaluation of the actual value of these trees.

    Our tree conservation policies need to be based on the value of the trees, not just the numbers of trees involved. We had the same issue with the Cannery site, and there are industry-developed standards that could be used to guide the city’s policies. If the developer had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the value of the trees, he might think twice about the number of houses he wanted to build on the site.

    I have been told that one “compromise” proposal is to transfer some of the trees to private ownership as part of the subdivision process. This doesn’t protect them. Relandscaping around mature trees is notoriously harmful, often weakening them. And of course, there is no guarantee that a future homeowner would not choose to remove them. If specific deed restrictions protected the individual trees, that might at least prevent their arbitrary removal. But I doubt the developer would accept that.

    Unfortunately, the planning commission, meeting with reduced membership attendance, has voted this proposal forward. So I urge the city council to reject the change, hold to the 2009 development agreement, and revisit the city’s existing tree protection guidelines to prevent future proposals of this sort. The city council also needs to develop a policy regarding sale of city greenbelt land for development so that staff won’t try to do anything like this again.

  8. DurantFan

    ….They add, “The current proposal would change the easterly greenbelt to Residential Low Density designation in order to allow the proposed eight-lot residential subdivision.”…

    Since when is “Residential Low Density” considered to be equivalent to the construction of an “eight-lot residential subdivision*” on the current site of a single (the former Haussler family) home.
    * With Granny Flats yet!

  9. South of Davis

    Does anyone know if this was the house that “Barefoot Bob” Haussler lived in?

    I’m also wondering if anyone knows who the developer of the site is?

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