How Much of An Impact Does Measure J Actually Have?

The massive Covell Village project was envisioned as the only major new project until 2010 - when it failed, there was no plan B.
The massive Covell Village project was envisioned as the only major new project until 2010 – when it failed, there was no plan B.

Last week, I ran a story on whether Measure J’s impact was overstated. There are those who believe that Measure J and its successor in 2010, Measure R, have strangled the city’s ability to grow.

The nature of growth in Davis has always been cyclical and I found a line in Mike Fitch’s history of Davis, “Growing Pains,” very telling, “By the 1990s, growth control had become a creed in Davis, but sometimes found itself in conflict with the city’s financial needs.”

This would ultimately open the door for some very large developments such as Wildhorse and Mace Ranch. By the late 1990s, Mr. Fitch writes, “The city’s growth was again in the political spotlight, in part because of the city’s drawn-out efforts to update the Davis General Plan. Critics charged that new houses were appearing at an alarming pace.”

Mr. Fitch writes, “City officials responded by assuring critics that the pace of housing construction would slow down in following years, noting that Covell Center was the last big residential project envisioned in the General Plan before the year 2010, and there was talk about removing it as part of the update process.”

So we already had the movement toward a slower period of growth – even without Measure J. Measure J would narrowly pass in 2000. The first test of Measure J was the revised form of Covell Center, called Covell Village.

If you look at a map of Davis, the two most logical peripheral subdivisions would have been the areas now known as Covell Village and Wildhorse Ranch. Covell Village – I argued last week – was doomed by its size. Wildhorse Ranch was doomed more by its timing.

I always wondered in those days of a pro-growth council why most of the eggs were placed in one basket, but Mike Fitch’s account suggests that that was by design. With little fallback option and Cannery and Nishi far off in stages of planning, it is no wonder that we saw few peripheral proposals in the last 15 years.

All of which leads me to believe that the impact of Measure J from 2000 to the present might be as much due to historical factors as it has to the law itself.

We note, of course, that Wildhorse passed a citizens’ vote, as did Target in 2006.

One of the stronger critics on the Vanguard wrote, “Before measure J nimby’s had to collect the signatures. After it the vote became automatic. It was brought by people who didn’t want to do the hard work of organizing a petition drive against a clock but who were against development.”

But as a counter-point, as I mentioned last week, conversations with Councilmember Sue Greenwald in 2007-2009 suggest to me that the belief that Measure J would stifle growth altogether is ill-founded. She told me on many occasions that at times she actually lamented Measure J. She felt that it gave license to the public to elect the Don Saylors and Stephen Souzas, knowing that they had a crutch in Measure J to stop peripheral projects.

She also pointed out the amount of energy it took on the part of activists to stop these large peripheral projects and she feared that a pro-growth council could put a series of Measure J votes on the ballot and eventually the citizens would be overwhelmed in fighting them, and there would be no one to oppose these projects.

I think here, while Ms. Greenwald had a point, that she underestimated the cost of putting a failed project on and the risk aversion of developers.

Nevertheless, her contemporaneous comments to me suggested that there was not necessarily a unified belief in the progressive community that Measure J would stop development. After all, Measure X failed, but Wildhorse and Target both went to the voters as non-Measure J votes and were passed.

The comment notes, “The problem is that it created a system that results in long delays. Without it we could be moving much more quickly toward adding economic development with a business park and dealing with our budget problems. It has caused huge delays, deterred projects from even being proposed because it increased the risks of having to pay for a campaign.”

But Measure J is not the only cause of long delays. Just look at the non-Measure J project, Cannery Park. There was by no means consensus on that project. There were those who believed that we should have put a business park on that spot. That ultimately led Lewis Planned Communities to exit the project.

ConAgra and New Homes would pick it up – but this was in 2010. It took three more years before Cannery Park was approved by council. And there was no Measure J vote there.

I agree with the poster that Measure J has deterred investors and developers from coming forward. However, I would argue that they are misreading the data as much as anyone else.

Measure X was a massive 2000-unit mixed use subdivision. Now, nearly nine years ago, what if Covell Village had been proposed at one-third of that property, at 600 units, with a commercial center along Covell and residential housing behind it? Would it still have failed in 2005?

The biggest issue that developed with regard to Covell Village was traffic impacts and the lack of a clear outlet, other than the already congested Pole Line – Covell Blvd corridor.

At the same time there were numerous tactical errors that were raised during the course of the campaign – as the Helen Thomson scare letter warning of the threat of Steve Gidaro coming into Davis if the pressure to develop weren’t relieved.

There was the ill-fated scandal where pizza was offered to students on the UC Davis campus in exchange for votes.

And my favorite, the developers gathering in the presence of then-Davis Enterprise reporter Claire St. John and doing a round of “We Shall Overcome.” Ms. St. John once told me that the developers kind of realized their error as soon as they started, but by then it was too late.

These factors not only served to doom the Covell Village campaign, but also and perhaps more importantly so turned off the public that even subsequent scaled-back efforts to develop that land have been so tarnished that the current developers have really dropped all interest in that site for the foreseeable future.

So the most logical area for peripheral subdivisions – an area basically surrounded on west, east, and south by development –  was effectively removed from the picture perhaps, one could argue, by greed (of proposing 2000 units) and incompetence (in failing to mitigate traffic impacts plus strange campaign tactics).

That leads me to the next point here – where does Davis expand? People talk about the lack of physical restraints, but that’s not completely true. Most of the east is now locked off from development. The south is bordered by Solano County and state laws make further development to the south an impossibility. You have the I-113 corridor and Pole Line road and you might have some areas to the west.

Bottom line, at this time I believe that the Davis way – smart and controlled growth – should not be an impediment to building a sustainable economic development program. I think if and when good projects come forth at Mace, Northwest Quadrant, Nishi and possibly Davis Ranch, the community can embrace them.

Do they have challenges? Absolutely. Nishi needs to deal with connectivity issues, particularly on the impacted Richards Blvd. Both Mace and Northwest Quadrant need to come forward with strong projects that the community can embrace.

Is there uncertainty with a vote of the citizens ahead? Absolutely. But the planning process itself is not without uncertainty. I think once a project is approved, the hesitation with be reduced.

—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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37 Comments

    1. David Greenwald

      What I’m implying is that if they had proposed a 600 unit project, that it would likely have passed and Measure J would not be held hostage by the fact that the developers came up with an unworkable project.

  1. Mr. Toad

    Pure speculation on your part. WHR was much smaller and lost even bigger. The fact of the matter is no measure J or R vote has been successful to date and that not one inch of land has been annexed in the 14 years since it passed. Spin it any way you want but developers know the score and as a result we have a balkanized planning process. Measure J was supposed to make Davis sustainable instead it has allowed the infrastructure to deteriorate. Perhaps the voters will change course and then everyone will say how great it is. Yet even then Cannery will have access limitations that would be solved with joint planning with Covell. Planning that was blocked because one parcel was inside the city while the other was outside.

    1. Mark West

      ” Yet even then Cannery will have access limitations that would be solved with joint planning with Covell. Planning that was blocked because one parcel was inside the city while the other was outside.”

      That points to the most pernicious aspect of Measure J/R – that it interferes with sound planning. Cannery and the adjoining parcel should have been planned together, even if the two projects did not have the same build out schedule. The future residents of the Cannery project will be ill served by this failure.

      1. Anon

        I understand your point and concern, and do not dismiss it. However, IMO Measure J/R was approved by the voters as the result of/backlash from overdevelopment that was not well thought out, e.g. Covell Village, Mace, and the fear of net negative revenue to the city.

        1. Davis Progressive

          i completely agree. without measure j, covell village would have broken ground and built dozens if not hundreds of homes that would have sat empty for years while the developers went bankrupt. measure j saved them from themselves and i have heard they now admit it.

          1. South of Davis

            DP wrote:

            > i completely agree. without measure j, covell village would
            > have broken ground and built dozens if not hundreds of
            > homes that would have sat empty for years while the developers
            > went bankrupt

            Are you joking? or do you really believe that homes in Davis would have “sat empty for years”? The only time homes in Davis have EVER “sat empty for years” is when they have been owned by the city (DACHA and Pacifico Co-Op) who does not care about renting them since it is easier to raise taxes for more money than to rent units….

            P.S. To David I’m only seeing three ads (one on the right side) on the site today (on both the PC and iPhone)…

          2. Mark West

            Houses were selling, just not at the inflated asking prices that many sellers (or potential sellers) demanded.

    2. Davis Progressive

      it’s pure speculation on your part as well… so why are you the only one allowed to speculate?

      the fact is that whr may have been smaller but it was in 2009 at the heart of the housing collapse. so that was a factor. and they ran a piss poor campaign as well. it deserved to get buried, but that’s the point of measure j and measure r, the voters can tell the council that they are drawing the line too low.

    3. Tia Will

      Mr. Toad

      ” Measure J was supposed to make Davis sustainable instead it has allowed the infrastructure to deteriorate.”

      I do not see Measure J as the cause of the deterioration of infrastructure. I see that as an outcome of the failure of city staff and previous City Councils to accurately portray the costs of infrastructure maintenance in a transparent manner understandable to the taxpayers and request adequate funding to provide for maintenance. Measure J neither caused nor sustained the current budgetary problems in my view.

      1. Mr. Toad

        There is plenty of blame to go around. One the one hand Davis has failed in the economic development and growth categories on the other it was a place devoted to paying its employees excellent wages and benefits.

        Combined these trajectories were unsustainable and so Davis must return to the taxpayer well to make ends meet. Now with the rise of the anti-tax anti growth coalition that passed measure P, elected an independent majority CC and polls show is less than inclined to raise taxes again to fix the roads and other amenities held in common Davis’ infrastructure and services face declines. The situation is the combination of many factors but until the community comes together and each coalition takes responsibility for its part it will be difficult to get out from behind the 8 ball.

        The bargaining units have taken hits on benefits either by negotiation or imposition. They have also lost positions to attrition. The community has come up with additional funding to support the schools, the city and hopefully and finally the water project, but seem reluctant to pay up for the roads. The one piece that has not yet added anything to the overall solution is the economic development and growth piece. In fact we currently have a no growth contingent that remains steadfastly in denial about trying to be part of the solution by not agreeing to 391, opposing Cannery, and slow walking development plans by insisting upon regular processes even if it means the possibility of Schilling Robotics moving part or all of its operations to other locations. Finally we have those that continue to argue that economic development isn’t a solution without any recognition that you can structure the deals to capture more revenue for the city just as Steve Pinkerton did with the Cannery.

  2. Frankly

    I think Measure J/R have exceeded its shelf life value. We would be better off without it, and working collaboratively to design the vision for this city going forward.

      1. Mark West

        True, but that doesn’t take into account the opportunities that were lost due the perceived costs of overcoming the required vote. I suspect that if the first of these proposed projects that comes up for a vote is in fact voted down, then progress on all of them will come to a screeching halt and not because they are bad projects. Then we will all see the true cost of Measure R.

          1. Mark West

            Part of the justification for putting Mace 391 into the Ag Easement was the argument that it ‘couldn’t pass a Measure R vote.’ In other words, we threw away the asset without considering the opportunity because of this law. Seems to me we have already proven the negative cost of the ordinance.

            To your point, I hope it is the worst case scenario, but I suspect it is more likely than not.

          2. Davis Progressive

            yes but why is that the case? first, it was large. second, the process was messed up and you had an army of opponents. third, it was not on the immediate boundary of the city.

            the reason we need measure r is to prevent political pressure from pushing the council to adopt bad projects

          3. Mark West

            And what your fail to accept is that is also blocks good projects before they ever become public.

            If the CC bends to political pressure in inappropriate ways, elect a new CC.

          4. Davis Progressive

            it’s not that i fail to accept it, it’s a risk i’m willing to take – hoping that once we pass one, the anxiety level will drop about it. it’s more mental than anything else.

          5. Mr. Toad

            391 wasn’t a bad project. It was controversial but it was not bad. From a fiscal perspective it was the golden goose and measure R helped kill the golden goose.
            Measures J/R are not mental impediments they are legal ones. They have already killed projects and delayed projects and cost people much time and money. Its easy to say its a risk you are willing to take because you agree with the policy and don’t have a project you want to build. You have no skin in the game. You are not taking any risk therefore saying its a risk you are willing to take is meaningless.

  3. Mr. Toad

    You are incorrect. In fact Lucas talked about measure R in explaining his vote from the dais. He talked about how he also had to think politically and how it couldn’t pass a measure R vote. It clearly was a factor.

    1. Matt Williams

      If you use those criteria, then everything that any individual person in Davis thinks about is a factor. That is not a very discriminating way to look at decision criteria. Measure J/R was deep, deep, deep background in Mace 391. It was behind Measure O. It was behind Steve Souza. It was behind Luana Kiger’s dissembling from the podium. Not one of the scores of public commenters mentioned Measure J/R as a factor even once in their public comment.

  4. Tia Will

    “If the CC bends to political pressure in inappropriate ways, elect a new CC.”

    If a project has already been initiated, electing a new council will not reverse the development of a “bad” project.”

    “Measures J/R are not mental impediments they are legal ones. They have already killed projects and delayed projects and cost people much time and money.

    I think this is attempting to have it both ways. You state that these measures are “not mental” but then claim that they have blocked projects from ever being proposed ( or at least you do not challenge Mark when he makes the claim that perception blocks the proposal of projects). Not proposing a project because of fear of failure would clearly seem to be “mental” to me.

  5. Anon

    Mace 391 was set aside for ag land because the process for the grant had already been started and the grant awarded. The city would have had to turn back grant money from the feds, which could have damaged the nonprofit that applied for the grant.

    1. Mr. Toad

      There were a lot of things that happened on a compressed timeline with 391 but the Open Space people didn’t give the city council enough time to deliberate before committing to ag preservation. When the city tried to go a different way with 391 the council was attacked by the Open Space scene. With measure R it became impossible to change course because even if the council had tried to go a different way the Open Space scene would have killed any project at the polls. The events you refer to occurred much later when the final decision was made. By then it was clear there was no turning back. It was earlier in the process where the threat of a failed measure R vote impacted the process.

      1. Anon

        I honestly believe the nonprofit that obtained the grant funding was the true driver in forcing the City Council’s hand. I was there that night, and you could see it. The City Council did not have the heart to turn down grant money for the acquisition of Mace 391 for open space, because it would have hurt the reputation of the nonprofit that obtained the grant.

          1. Don Shor

            To quote Rob White, fall of 2013:

            Could we technically still vacate the grant? Yes, but honestly it will create collateral damage to long-standing partnerships and relationships. As put to me by the NRCS assistant state conservationist, they don’t consider an easement a done deal until it is signed in ink at the courthouse steps. She shared candidly that others have negated a deal at the last minute, but realistically, this is not without consequences when you are a public agency like the city. So, to be fair, the community needs to be very aware of what this discussion means.[/blockquote]

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