Sunday Commentary: City Budget Could Become Greatest Threat to Open Space, Environment

greenbeltsFor the past several weeks, I have been reading about concerns that people have regarding city greenbelts and whether the development at Paso Fino will set a precedent for the city – which currently lacks a policy on the sale of greenbelts – to sell off greenbelts for development.

While it is an interesting question to ponder, it seems that the Paso Fino subdivision has some unique characteristics which may mean that whatever the city decides to do is seen as merely unique to that development.

Mike Webb, the city’s Director of Community Development, told the Vanguard that the greenbelt here is “not the typical greenbelt configuration” that the public would ordinarily envision as a long, city-maintained stretch of grass and vegetation that people can walk or bike through.

Rather, it is a stretch of trees and brown ground that was specifically designed to buffer the Haussler home from the surrounding neighborhood.

Whatever the council ultimately decides to do about Paso Fino, there seems a far greater threat to what we might call “the Davis Way” – that embodies design concepts of open space, a network of greenbelts and parks – and that is the city’s budget crisis.

As we have explained a number of times, the city of Davis, in late 2013, saw a $5 million structural deficit open up. This was based on a number of factors – increased costs for employee compensation such as health care and pensions, decreases in the projected savings in the MOU, and infrastructure demands, among other things.

By 2018, that $5 million deficit was projected to increase to about $8 million as water rates take full effect and further increases to compensation levels take effect as projected.

The voters in June approved a six year stop-gap sales tax measure that closed most of the deficit or at least the current deficit. We still need to be mindful of 2018.

But that is only part of the story. As our regular readers know, we have additional problems. We have hundreds of millions of dollars that we owe in deferred maintenance on roads, bike paths and sidewalks. We have uncalculated millions that we may owe on parks. There are potentially millions for pools and other infrastructure as well.

We have also laid out the funding potential. One is through cuts. A second is short-term, through a parcel tax. And a third is longer term, through economic development.

The other thing that we have learned this week, as we analyzed the recent polling – most of the public seems unaware of just how precarious the city budget is right now. About one-third of those who responded to the Godbe Poll believes that the city finances are in good or excellent shape, and another 35 percent believes they are in fair shape.

Those numbers are troubling when we are looking at millions in structural deficits and hundreds of millions in deferred maintenance costs.

The parcel tax polling was equally troubling with neither a $149 or a $99 parcel tax polling anywhere near the two-thirds needed for passage.

The roads are in bad enough condition that the city would like to continue diverting $4 to $5 million in general fund monies to shore them up. Those are monies that will have to come from other places – city services, amenities.

It is probably an extreme case scenario where the city would start closing and potentially selling off parks and greenbelts to produce one-time revenue, and also decrease water and maintenance costs, but it is not inconceivable.

After all, at some point the city is going to have trouble further tightening employee compensation. The city would start looking at ways to outsource some services to save on compensation costs and benefits in particular, but with aging parks infrastructure and the increased costs of water, plus the potential for revenue generation, the city will increasingly be tempted to sell some of its assets to stay solvent.

The city’s policies on peripheral land development have already increased the demand for densification and infill.

One way to alleviate the ultimate pressure on the system, aside from a short-term parcel tax that will free up general fund monies to continue to provide high levels of city services, will be the passage of innovation parks on the periphery that will general large amounts of money over time. First would be the one-time but very large potential revenue from construction, and, second, the ongoing property tax and sales tax revenue that would be generated by those sites.

By opening up 200, 400, and potentially more acreage on the periphery or at Nishi, if the voters support those actions, the city would reduce the pressures internally to generate revenue through the potential sell off of public lands or contraction of city services. It is probably more likely – at least at first – that the city would simply stop maintaining greenbelts and close parks rather than sell them off. But the longer they lie in disuse, the greater the pressure will mount to do something with them.

We need to be clear that all of these proposals are in the early stages, but the basic problem is very clear – the city is not generating enough revenue right now to support our high level of demand on city services and if the voters are unwilling to support new taxes or unwilling to support peripheral economic development, the city will have to look very closely at other ways to generate revenue or cut costs.

This may ultimately prove to be a far greater threat to “the Davis way.” The city needs to remain solvent and something is going to have to give. It is up to the community now to decide what Davis is going to look like in the future.

—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. Tia Will

    I want to make a very small point within the much larger picture that this article presents.

    “Rather, it is a stretch of trees and brown ground that was specifically designed to buffer the Haussler home from the surrounding neighborhood.”

    I find it quite ironic that the intent of this green belt, specifically designed to buffer the Haussler home, is currently not being applied equally towards buffering the effect of the new proposal ( not agreed to in the initial planning) on the existing homes.
    Also not being considered by those who wish to sell the green belt are the secondary gains besides the “initial intent” such as open space, wildlife habitat ( and yes, I know they can just move ! ), and consideration of the current residents, just as was initially done for the Haussler’s.

    1. Claudia Morain

      Lots of great comments on this story.

      Fyi, the latest proposal for Paso Fino will be heard at the Wednesday, Sept. 24, Planning Commission meeting. 7 pm, City Hall.

      While I’m here, I ran across a new acronym I rather enjoy and would like to share: TRIMBY (Trees In My Back Yard) …

  2. Barack Palin

    “not the typical greenbelt configuration” that the public would ordinarily envision as a long, city maintained stretch of grass and vegetation that people can walk or bike through.”

    So any city owned greenbelt that might have a slightly different configuration would be considered fair game by city hall?

    “Rather, it is a stretch of trees and brown ground….”

    So any city owned greenbelt that doesn’t have grass and vegetation might be up for grabs? There are many stretches that just have trees and brown ground around town. By the way isn’t all ground brown if it isn’t covered by something?

  3. Frankly

    You cannot have your freakin’ cake and eat it too. Open up peripheral development so that interior space can be redeveloped to more open space and more open space can be included in the new peripheral development.

    People are absurd. The demand to keep Davis small and dense and then to argue that we should NOT develop in-fill because of the trees and natural habitat and buffer. Please pick door number one or door number two. You cannot have them both because they both conflict with each other.

      1. Don Shor

        Just dichotomous thinking. Either/or. Of course they don’t conflict; it’s a matter of planning and site design. But it’s always easier to frame a conflict with only two possible outcomes.

          1. Don Shor

            It all depends on the density of the housing in the infill project. Paso Fino, for example, went from 2 lots to 4 in the original development agreement. Now the builder wants to put even more housing there. That would, obviously, reduce open space. But the placement of the houses and the circulation plan can allow for more open space. Smaller lots allow more open space.

  4. davisite4

    David, you seem to be suggesting that if we don’t have innovation parks (and take other measures) that we will lose open space and harm the environment. But some of the proposed innovation parks themselves are a threat to open space and the environment, especially if they are on valuable ag land. Your premise really doesn’t make sense.

    1. David Greenwald

      What I’m suggesting is that if we do not fix our budget, there will be pressure to do things of that sort. There are limited options to fixing the budget for sure, but the specifics I think people need to work through.

  5. Alan Miller

    Another conflict is some trees will hamper solar development, so with solar development required, no one is going to plant trees that will hamper solar collection, thus fewer trees. Of course with the skyrocketing price of water, there soon won’t be as many trees around because of that. Fewer trees seems to be our future. That means less cooling via shade, which increases power needs.

  6. DavisBurns

    Plant trees that are small when mature, build two story houses and you can put solar on the roof and have trees too. I live in a neighborhood with mature trees and we have lots of solar on our roofs. Because we have mature trees, we have problems with some of them that are more than forty years old. People don’t think much about how big the tree will be in 40-50 years and how long it is likely to remain healthy. Maybe the solar initiative will result in better placement and selection of trees. Planning ahead is always a good idea.

    Re:brown greenbelts. Why does a park have to be all green? Why isn’t it a park if it has people using it, wildlife living there and plants growing on it? As far as our greenbelts go, why not reduce the turf by 50%. Keep the playing fields, and a few meadows. Different landscaping could be more interesting, beautiful and use less water. Not an expert but maybe it would also take less maintenance. We just returned from Arizona on the Colorado plateau. It was greener in the dessert than when we drove through Bakersfield and San Luis Obispo. Granted it was monsoon season in Arizona but the California hills were just as dry and brown last January as they were in August. The dry brown hills have their own beauty we need to appreciate it.

    Speaking of Bakersfield, we saw lots of young orchards and newly planted trees and vineyards. In stead of row crops that have to be planted every year or not planted if there is insufficient water, they are planting trees that will need water every year to survive. In fact it seems like more and more acreage is being put into grapes all over California.

    We have subsidence from Davis to Knights Landing and what subsides does not rise again, it’s a one way trip. When the land sinks, the aquifer holds less water. We need to be serious about how we use our water and having less green in our greenbelts seems like a good place to start. We are adding 547 new houses at the Cannery. That will increase the demand for water. Each research/business/ innovation park will increase demand. We need to ask what is the resource, what are the limits and how much can we grow.

    I suppose since we don’t have meters on our wells and we are all pumping from the same source, and no other communities are asking the above questions, we can join the crowd and use as much as “necessary” to grow as much as we want for as long as we can but we are pumping water out of our aquifer faster than it is being recharged.

    1. Anon

      We have meters on our houses. And it is my understanding the city will meter its own use of water. Apts are metered, altho not by individual unit. The problem is that there are parts of CA that are not metered, including Sacramento, but I believe that is supposed to change with the new ground water management plans.

  7. Incog

    Creating a vibrant innovation economy in and around Davis is important – not only because the City is going bankrupt, but because we have a ethical obligation to support UC Davis. This is an internationally important institution that will play a critical role in the coming decades as we confront the myriad of global crises that are threatening the lives of billions of people and the planet itself. This community’s long-standing mindless pursuit of a no-growth agenda – wrapped in ag land preservation rhetoric – reflects a level of parochial conceit that is deeply disturbing.

    From the May 2014 issue of National Geographic:

    “Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

    The environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, and they’ll only become more pressing as we try to meet the growing need for food worldwide. We’ll likely have two billion more mouths to feed by mid-century—more than nine billion people.”

    Just like the world has to balance starvation with the environmental consequences of trying to feed the global population, Davis and Yolo County need to grow up and balance ag land preservation with the need to create an environment where UC Davis and the technology companies in its orbit can prosper.

    1. realchangz

      When this issue was raised in a public forum surrounding the water project, the questioner was told that “Davis is a wealthy community and needed to do its fair share in conserving water and that such comments (like the National Geographic article you reference) were just a “political red herring”.

      Me thinks you may be beginning to dig outside the boundaries of the sandbox.

      1. Incog

        I’m not sure I understand your point.

        If it’s about the community’s desire to do our fair share – doesn’t that also mean that the City has a fair share obligation to support the innovation economy necessary to maximize the public benefit of UC Davis?

    2. Don Shor

      This community’s long-standing mindless pursuit of a no-growth agenda – wrapped in ag land preservation rhetoric – reflects a level of parochial conceit that is deeply disturbing….Davis and Yolo County need to grow up…

      Pretty patronizing. If you wanted to actually have a conversation, this wasn’t the way to go about it.

    1. Anon

      That depends on viewpoint. Tighter infill is supposed to be the desired policy of the City Council and environmentalists. Now the environmentalists have decided tighter infill is not in their best interests. They can’t have it both ways.

      1. Don Shor

        If you make the lots smaller, you can have more open space. That’s the tradeoff. If we wish to preserve the Canary Island pines, and keep the open space, the lots will have smaller yards. It is not a strict dichotomy of # of houses vs. open space. It is size of houses vs. open space. They (we) can have it both ways.
        When I took a class in landscape architecture, one of our projects was to do a design for the site that is now Aggie Village. It was very challenging, and I’ve always been impressed by what the actual designers pulled off for that difficult site. Students came up with a range of circulation plans, housing densities, total number of houses, open areas — it all depends on how you configure it and what size you make the homes and parcels, and how you design the traffic flow.

        1. South of Davis

          Don wrote:

          > If you make the lots smaller, you can have more open space.

          If we moved everyone out of the single family homes in Davis in to Japanese style apartments we could have even more open space (and if we moved the people that live on very large multi-acre lots we would have even more “open space”)…

          1. Don Shor

            Many of the larger apartment complexes in South Davis have a surprising amount of open space. And multi-unit developments like La Buena Vida (north of Green Meadows) have very large amounts of open space. Any good planner can show you examples of well-designed living areas that incorporate greenbelts, parks, open space, and other sites where people can gather and exercise etc.

          2. South of Davis

            Don wrote:

            > Many of the larger apartment complexes in South Davis
            > have a surprising amount of open space.

            Most (but not all) people want their OWN private (fenced) open space where their kids can leave toys and they can keep a cooler full of beers next to the Bar-B-Q. I’m betting that most (probably all) the families living in apartments in Davis are only doing it because they can’t afford to rent or buy a home in Davis.

  8. DavisBurns

    Davis is a slow growth city? I don’t think so. We have done a good job of controlling sprawl and maintaining our borders but I don’t buy slow growth. Look at the numbers

    Historical population
    Census Pop. %±
    1870 500

    1880 441 −11.8%
    1890 547 24.0%
    1900 700 28.0%
    1910 800 14.3%
    1920 939 17.4%
    1930 1,243 32.4%
    1940 1,672 34.5%
    1950 3,554 112.6%
    1960 8,910 150.7%
    1970 23,488 163.6%
    1980 36,640 56.0%
    1990 46,209 26.1%
    2000 60,308 30.5%
    2010 65,622 8.8%

    1. Frankly

      The issue isn’t population, the issue is development. Davis does not expand due to:

      – Hyper and irrational sensitivity to sprawl without even being able to define the word and the risk that Davis would suffer it.

      – Extreme and irrational environmentalism that favors ag land and open space preservation over any development.

      – Greedy people wanting to maximize their property values.

      It is really quite laughable when your reading something like this… “proof” that Davis has grown due to population growth as an argument to dissuade others from thinking we need more growth.

      How about trending Davis’s population density compared to other cities?

      How about comparing Davis’s business tax revenue per capita compared to other cities?

      1. Don Shor

        …. and now we get your continuing mythical “Davis is dense” argument, and your usual vilification of various straw men. The city of Davis is not dense. The “Davis urban area” apparently is. We’ve been through this before.
        Preserving ag land isn’t irrational or extreme, and those who seek to do so aren’t opposed to “any development.”
        Opposing sprawl isn’t irrational. The word is easy to define, and easy to show with aerial photographs and maps.
        Some people do invest in property, and I assume you don’t think investors are innately “greedy.” I don’t look at my land and house that way, but I think some people do. Are stock or bond investors “greedy?”
        So — can you actually have a conversation without using this kind of language? Or do you actually want to have a conversation? Someone like Incog doesn’t, obviously, or he/she wouldn’t be so patronizing and dismissive.

        1. realchangz

          And as to the assertions and contentions underlying Incogs’ offensive delivery – are they to be ignored simply because they are deemed patronizing or dismissive?

        2. Anon

          To Don: I would disagree with your statement that those who want to preserve ag land aren’t opposed to any development. Some are, and they use preserve ag land as an excuse for no growth at all.

          1. Davis Progressive

            so why does it matter to you if those who want to preserve ag land ARE opposed to any development?

      2. Mark West

        Frankly “How about comparing Davis’s business tax revenue per capita compared to other cities?”

        This would be very interesting information, especially if the data were graphed along with the population growth data above. I would be fascinated to see our business tax revenue Per Capita over time with other cities in our region, and also compared to the region as a whole. My suspicion is that Davis will lag behind the rest of the region, but it would be nice to have the data rather than just a suspicion.

        1. Don Shor

          You come up with a chart showing per capita sales tax, per capita property tax, and maybe add in the increase in public employee compensation for cities in the region, and I’ll make it into an image and save it for future discussions.

          1. John D

            The transactional volumes underlying the sales tax figures are anemic. A chart might help in visualizing the disparity, but the questions will still remain, particularly in terms of Why? and, then, What do we have in our powers to do about it?

          2. Don Shor

            But the property tax numbers are not anemic.
            Why the lower sales tax revenues?
            Demographics: Davis population skews older and younger than optimal retail.
            History: Woodland has always been the retail and commercial hub.
            Geography: the university owns the prime land along the freeway, and what isn’t university-owned is in auto dealerships.

          3. John D

            It’s complicated but not rocket science. I agree with you, it’s worth trying to understand rather than speculating. We might learn somethingin the process.

          4. Don Shor

            I didn’t take any philosophy classes in college, so I haven’t learned about the ethical underpinnings of commercial development. If the city of Davis fails to provide space for university-related businesses, the world won’t starve. Those businesses will locate elsewhere and the city of Davis will fail to gain the economic benefits. That seems to be sufficient reason that proposals for peripheral business parks are moving forward. Those who oppose them will likely be acting from concern that they will spark demand for housing development, which Davis residents have historically opposed. How we get from that to ‘fair share’ and ‘obligations’ I don’t really follow. You won’t likely shame Davis voters into approving projects.
            Moreover, none of this will lead to a significant increase in taxable sales. It will continue to increase the property tax side of Davis revenues.

          5. John D

            No need to discuss shaming anybody – as you say -into anything if our taxpayers are as generous as you seem inclined to imply.

            As for your assertion that “none of this will lead to a significant increase in taxable sales” – that I would suggest is merely your speculation – presented as if it were fact.

            That is the problem I am having with this entire conversation.

          6. Don Shor

            How would any of the peripheral business/innovation parks that are being proposed significantly increase sales tax revenue? Business-to-business sales, some. Small-scale retail at each park as service businesses for the employees there, some. But these are primarily commercial sites, not retail, right?

          7. Matt Williams

            Don, I don’t have an answer for you, but in the MoriSeki tour early this year I believe they told us that the completed machines they were shipping qualified for sales tax. I think the reason was that the shipping destination was the final user of the equipment.

          8. John D

            Excuse the hour of this post as I am travelling.

            Your comments point up several very important issue – pertinent to this conversation. It is easy to overlook the point, but one of the major issues in this discussion is the small number of local workers in our daily workforce population. As mentioned, elsewhere, Palo Alto plays host to 120,000 jobs versus our 32,000 (half of whom are physically domiciled in Yolo County on a daily basis) – at the same resident population of 66,000. What if we assumed the addition of merely another 20,000 workers in the new Innovation Centers – what would be the impact of their daily, per capita purchases of simply lattes and sandwiches? Add in weekly purchases of petrol and the odd retail sundries afforded by an employed worker. What does this add up to in a year? What are the taxes on those purchases? Assuming no new “houses” or permanent residents – what does that do to our “per capita” sales tax?

            Beyond this simple example, your examples above fail to address the impact of taxable B2B purchases by the new employers? How many will be purchasing new telephone systems, computer networks, ipads, mobile phones, scanners and photocopiers, vehicles, forklifts and expensive new manufacturing equipment? What are the incremental new sales taxes generated by these recurring transactions? What is the “per capita” impact on local sales tax revenue?

            As for the example you cite, where a manufacturer of expensive new equipment is excused from the obligation for collection of sales taxes on out of state sales – that is a fish of another color. Sales tax codes which excuse the obligation for collection of sales tax on such transactions is a holdover from another era. The state of California goes hard after CA businesses who make large purchases from out of state vendors and who fail to report the acquisition as a use tax. Many states don’t. But what of a sale by a manufacturer located in Davis to one located in San Jose? Who becomes the beneficiary of the sales tax in that “in state” transaction? If the sale is FOB Factory, then the shipping party is on the hook. If the sale is FOB Customer, then the receiving party should receive the sales tax increment – but do they? How does that work in reality?

            All of these are examples of “economic activity and transactions with potential taxable consequences” and should be addressed in any analysis purporting to address the net impacts of taxable trans$actions resulting from any proposed new development.

            Take more local examples, what of the two major trucking companies domiciled in Dixon. What are resulting sales tax entries when a $300,000 truck and trailer is acquired? The transaction may be a “purchase” rather than a “taxable sale”, but what are the sales tax consequences? Then, what are the “taxable consequences” of the ongoing tire and fuel purchases involved in operating this equipment? Again, these may be purchases rather than sales, but what are the sale tax consequences? Now divide those taxes by the number of local residents – what does that activity do for your “per capita taxable sales”?

            Just saying, the math is a little more complicated than the simply looking at the taxable sales of local retailers.

      3. David Greenwald

        Strangely Frankly, you missed the explanation of why I have opposed many projects – I suspect a lot of other people have similar reasons to me and it has little to do with environment, sprawl or property values.

  9. Tia Will


    Agreed. With one caveat. I believe that for some of us there will be a combination of factors including all of the above which may play variable roles in our thinking depending upon the particular proposal. This is much more complex than the caricatures drawn by those who feel that a preference for smaller is inevitably tied to only one factor usually depicted as “emotional” as opposed to the more likely “multifactorial”.

  10. Tia Will


    “How about trending Davis’s population density compared to other cities?

    How about comparing Davis’s business tax revenue per capita compared to other cities?”

    One could do this with an infinite number of factors chosen to reflect one’s own values and then hold those up for comparison to other cities cherry picked to skew the information to “prove one’s point”.
    This type of comparison makes the assumption that all of us have the same values and actually want to be more like city X or Y.

  11. Anon

    The new innovation parks are likely to be included in an “assessment district”, and charged by the square footage, which will create a steady stream of income to the city.

    Secondly, the City Council and environmentalists are pushing for tighter infill, yet when a developer proposes tighter infill, environmentalists cry wolf, insisting it is a takeover of open space. Tighter infill means less open space within the infill. This is one of the basic problems with infill – it begins to look like an urban environment with lots of cement and asphalt, but little open space. What you have is competing interests that often conflict with each other.

      1. Matt Williams

        DP, my sense is there is a disconnect between support of the “macro” concept of infill and support of the “micro” concept of infill, with any infill project that is in one’s own neighborhood being a “micro” levil infill project. Said another way we talk the infill talk, but we don’t walk the infill walk.

  12. Davis Progressive

    did anyone in their comments address the main point raised in this article that budgetary pressures will lead to a decline in open space considerations in davis?

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