Vanguard Analysis: Object Lessons of Paso Fino and Framing of Greenbelts Issue



The issue of the selling of a greenbelt to create infill development has resonated within at least a key sector of the community. It is an interesting issue for a lot of reasons. On Wednesday, the planning commission will look at it for a second time, but the city council has not yet had a chance to weigh in.

One of the most curious aspects of the issue is that there is no council direction and there is also not city policy “regarding elimination of greenbelt parcels, or what to do when an infill densification project involves the potential to remove an existing greenbelt space.” City staff acknowledges that this will become “a policy issue to be weighed by the city council.”

But from our perspective that is not the most interesting issue. Instead, it is an object lesson on the difficulties of managing public outreach for development projects.

From the perspective of both the city and the developer, we have the words of Mike Webb, the city’s Director of Community Development, who 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.

As developer Jason Taormino explained to the Vanguard, from his perspective, “the 2009 staff report defines the land as a private buffer to benefit the Haussler property and protect them from the new homes that were built in Wildhorse in approximately 1998.  The sale of this private buffer in order to promote infill development is reasonable as it is no longer needed to protect the Haussler property from the encroachment from the new neighbors in Wildhorse.”

“The greenbelt on the east side… that was created for the Haussler family, it wasn’t created for the Wildhorse subdivision,” Dave Taormino explained to the planning commission.

However, as Pam Nieberg and Alan Pryor wrote last week, “Because the City of Davis does not currently have a policy addressing the sale of greenbelts and has never sold such parcels for development in the past, the Yolano Group is very concerned that this transaction to sell greenbelts to a private developer to accommodate this project could set a dangerous precedent.”

What do we learn from this? The article by Ms. Nieberg and Mr. Pryor generated 70 comments last week on the Vanguard. What we see are effectively two strands of conversations, one of which focuses on whether or not this configuration is a greenbelt.

As one poster suggested: “Walk and bike the city greenbelts sometime, you’ll see many that are just trees and dirt like the Paso Fino site.”

The other is the a more global picture embodied by this post: “If you want infill to deter urban sprawl, then there is less room for open space, and you get urbanization of living areas, much as the Cannery will be, with lots of houses on tiny lots, squeezed in tight. There will be some open/green space, but the denser the infill, the less room for open space. Which is it environmentalists, do you want open space or urbanization/infill? You can’t have it both ways.”

Now whether or not that depiction is true – there is considerable conversation, pushed by those in favor of more growth, that we have put ourselves into a box with regard to development, and therefore, we are going to run into this conflict of open space versus density. Whether it is true that it is all or nothing, I think that’s a reasonable counter point.

The problem is that, if you look at extended public discourse, the greenbelts issue is winning by a very wide margin.

That view is embodied by the letters to the editor which almost unequivocally have leaned against the project. One writer wrote, “Don’t sell the community’s soul for a small mass of dollars. Keep the trees. Keep the greenbelt.”

Another had a more lengthy letter summed up by, “The proposed Paso Fino infill project is so flawed it could serve as an illustration of poor planning in a textbook. I don’t live in the neighborhood, but I am deeply disturbed that the city is giving serious consideration to a project that would create so many problems…”

Even John Mott-Smith wrote in a September 4 column, “I spent some time recently with neighbors of the proposed Paso Fino development being discussed for a small plot along Covell Boulevard. They’re concerned that the proposed increase in density on this property will have lots of negative impacts, including poor traffic circulation, the removal of lots of trees and the city ceding a greenbelt to the project.”

He adds, “It’s hard to argue with that. It appears to be an increase in density that will not increase the walkability of the neighborhood, but instead will just increase car traffic.”

As I write this, it is hard to know exactly how this plays out. When the planning commission approved the project by a 3-2 vote last spring, they did so with two members missing and before the community activists ginned up broader discontent for the project.

However, what is clear is that the developers here have completely lost control of the message. They never had a strong response to the idea of building on a greenbelt, which to the average person seems absolutely ludicrous.

It is easy to generate outrage for a project that seems to run counter to common sense, and such a counter-campaign has to be carefully and methodically weighed out.

I spoke with the developers last week after we ran the piece from Pam Nieberg and Alan Pryor – we think balanced community discussion is something to encourage, but while they indicated that they wanted to respond, a week later, we have nothing.

Are they counting on their allies on the city council to push this through? Given the direction and trajectory of public opinion, at least right now, it is hard to see the council putting their necks on the line.

But this is not only a good lesson but also an important warning. I met with Jason Taormino, I watched the planning commission meeting, and then I met with some of the neighbors and walked the site and discussed their concerns.

On the one hand, I could see from the neighbors’ perspective how they would not like this project, but the potent issue is not the neighbor issue, but the greenbelt issue. 99% of the residents will not be impacted by Paso Fino one way or another, however, everyone in this community has come to rely on the principles of open space, and greenbelts embody those views in a way that everyone can understand.

The pushback argument that we saw on the Vanguard is not going to sway the majority of public opinion. The public is not going to support what they see as the city selling off greenbelts in the wake of lack of other developable land. That is just not going to fly in Davis.

The developers never attempted to wholesale counter to that viewpoint. The idea that these were not typical greenbelts is an argument that could be made and has been made, but without continued advocacy, it failed to take hold and people could counter that there are other greenbelts that aren’t as green as what we might typically envision.

While this is a non-Measure R issue, it illustrates that Measure R is not the only barrier to development in Davis and I worry very much about the ability of the city and developers of the innovation park being able to anticipate issues that could bring their project down.

—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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31 thoughts on “Vanguard Analysis: Object Lessons of Paso Fino and Framing of Greenbelts Issue”

  1. Barack Palin

    In Davis they came first for the Wildhorse greenbelt, and I didn’t speak up because it wasn’t a greenbelt in my neighborhood. Then they came for another greenbelt, and I didn’t speak up because I didn’t care, it wasn’t my greenbelt. Then they came for the greenbelt on my side of town, and I didn’t speak up because it wasn’t close to my house. Then they came my greenbelt, and by that time no one spoke up because I didn’t speak up when they took their greenbelt.

    1. Frankly

      You know… I have read this same line before with a bit more profound subject matter.

      How about this idea… the Wildhorse homeowners buy the land from the owner to keep it open space.

      1. Barack Palin

        Frankly, why should the homeowners have to buy a city greenbelt? The private land owner can sell their property and have it developed, nobody is complaining about that. How about this, all homeowners must buy their local greenbelts to keep the land out of developer’s hands? That wouldn’t fly, would it?

        1. Frankly

          Buy it from the city.

          1. They will probably give you a good deal. Hell, they gave away 391 acres recently that worth about $1 million for $500,000 less than they paid for it.

          2. They could use the money for affordable housing somewhere else.

          3. That land owned by the WIldhorse HSA would enhance property values.

  2. SODA

    I see this as more than a greenbelt issue. The canary pines have been ‘lost’ in most of the discussion but will benefit from being saved (some) if the project is denied as presented.

    But the other issue is that a project was approved in 2009 and now the developers want to change it significantly. As I have stated before in other projects, I think these situations should have to start over; a prior approval then a big change in the plans should not be entitled to move forward without starting over with the approval process regardless of whether a new developer has bought the land and/or finds the old project does not pencil out.

    The other comment is the effort of the neighbors to engage others and the CC in this discussion has been significant. I do not live in the area (SODA=South Davis) but attended one neighborhood meeting with a city councilman and it was only one. They have met with all of the CC invidividually.

    1. Tia Will

      Hi Soda

      I completely agree with your comment about the need to restart the approval process from the beginning when a change from the agreed upon plan is being considered.

    2. hpierce

      What do you mean by “start over”? Project layout design? Zoning / prelim PD? Please clarify…

      I believe they should still be able to move forward with the 2009 project (even tho’ it was less than ideal), as long as they act to do so before those entitlements expire.

        1. hpierce

          Sorry to push… change from the one house that existed? Change from the 2 that would have been allowed the Hausslers? The four that was approved in 2009? [sorry for using ‘vernacular’, previously… bad habit of mine]

          As to the trees, that would be a direct result of the site plan, not the zoning. Quite frankly, I would not mourn the loss of the pines, as they are non-native, and can severely damage the curbs, sidewalks, bikepaths that they are planted next to. Ones with active nests should be protected while that is the case, and new, preferably drought-tolerant natives should be planted in the general vicinity as ‘mitigation’.

          1. Don Shor

            The Canary Island pines are better-adapted to this area and to that site than many ‘native’ tree species would be. And it’s hard to “mitigate” six-plus decades of growth of healthy, well-adapted, drought-tolerant trees such as those pines.

  3. Tia Will

    “I worry very much about the ability of the city and developers of the innovation park being able to anticipate issues that could bring their project down”

    I share this concern. The process that I have seen unfolding so far is that the developers are presenting their ideas ( at least at the forums I have attended to date) as sales pitches. While this may be an effective strategy in some locations, I do not see it as a viable option in Davis. At each meeting that I have attended so far, I have spoken directly with the representatives about the need to address both the anticipated benefits and the anticipated problems and downsides to each development openly and honestly. In these conversations I have received a range of responses from what I perceive as a full understanding of this need, to a blank stare ( which fits with my ongoing concern that some either may not be able to perceive any downsides, or that this is not seen as relevant ). I am hoping that as a community we can approach our differing visions for the community with respect for all points of view rather than assuming that ours is the best solution and that it is our “job” to sell or push our solution onto others regardless of their preferences.

  4. Don Shor

    it illustrates that Measure R is not the only barrier to development in Davis

    The only barrier to development on the site is how many houses the current developers are willing to build. There are various options out there, including one just proposed by staff which preserves the greenbelt and the pines, that would be six houses. The site was zoned for two.

  5. DavisBurns

    I love the picture posted of the grassless brown belt. The manicured greenbelts can be a bit sterile. I like big trees, low maintenance concept. Let’s keep it that way.

  6. Jim Frame

    I haven’t followed this issue closely, though the concept of selling a greenbelt definitely raises red flags for me. But one bit of information I haven’t seen is the price for the greenbelt land. Have any valuations been put forth? If the city agrees to sell – and I’m not suggesting that it should or shouldn’t – I would expect it to put a stiff premium on the land, both to make the most of the opportunity and to establish a precedent that discourages efforts to convert public open space to private use.

  7. Anon

    This is not a “greenbelt”, but a “buffer” that has outlived its purpose. The city council policy is tighter infill, which is what the developer is trying to achieve. Tighter infill means less urban sprawl. The environmentalists cannot have it both ways.

    1. South of Davis

      Anon wrote:

      > This is not a “greenbelt”, but a “buffer” that has outlived its purpose.

      It seems like every topic on the Vanguard gets away from actually arguing about “Why” something is happening or “why” we should do something to “What” to call it…

      For example:

      It is not a “tank” it is a “vehicle to protect people”
      He is not a “drunk out of control cop” but a “off duty officer protecting his family from a drug dealer”
      It is not a “great site for a tech park” but “some of the most valuable farmland in America”
      Davis is not full of “crazy bag banners” but ‘environmentalists working to save the planet”
      She is not a “power crazed vindictive school board member” but a “mom trying to protect her daughter”…

  8. DurantFan

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

    Where a developer may only see “brown” ground (as above), a careful observer can see what actually is there. Neighbors and careful observers know that the green pine trees are underlain by a fine carpet of brown pine needles. Don’t let the developer’s $$$ “blind” you!

  9. Tia Will

    “a “buffer” that has outlived its purpose.”

    It has outlived its initially stated purpose. That is not the same thing as saying that it has outlived all of its value. This is what is being discussed here. There is no dispute about initial intent as has been discussed here multiple times. It is current value that is in dispute.

  10. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    I can fully understand why the nearest neighbors believe the loss of this buffer will harm their properties or quality of life. I can also understand why some slightly more remote neighbors who walk through the buffer as a shortcut to or from Covell Blvd believe this project will harm their interests.

    What I cannot understand is why anyone else in Davis should really care about the removal of this buffer. There is not a chance in hell this is some sort of anti-greenbelt precedent which will result in other public greenbelts being lost. The trees are not a big deal to the city as a whole or even for much shade relief, though perhaps their being chopped down creates a small loss to our city’s tree canopy, and therefore compensation to the City should be paid for that.

    I suspect, because the “open space” ideologues seem to always get their way, this project will be killed. And maybe that is the right decision–albeit for the wrong reasons–because it probably will cause harm to some in that neighborhood who were there long before this project was proposed.

    In my solomonic mind, I would figure out a dollar figure for all the proximate property owners and a lower figure for those who might suffer for the loss as a pleasant shortcut to Covell, and then, give the developer, if he wants to go forward, the choice to pay off all those who are deemed hurt by this development. Further, I would require the developer to pay a small price to the City for the loss of the pine trees and perhaps have him plant varietals of that species in another appropriate location in Davis. If these expenses were too great, then the developer would choose to abandon his plans. But if he decided to pay the aggrieved parties off and build his houses, no one would come out unhappy other than those “open space” ideologues who always choose to be unhappy about such things.

    1. Don Shor

      I suspect, because the “open space” ideologues seem to always get their way, this project will be killed.

      No reason for that. There are at least four different proposals out there right now, involving varying degrees of density and preservation. The neighbors and the builder have both shown willingness to compromise.

    2. Don Shor

      Further, I would require the developer to pay a small price to the City for the loss of the pine trees and perhaps have him plant varietals of that species in another appropriate location in Davis.

      Perhaps I can give this a context that you, as a supporter of preserving historical buildings, can appreciate. This is like saying they should just pay a small fee for tearing down century-old buildings, and then build replicas of them somewhere else in town.
      To me, it is very frustrating that anybody would look at trees that are decades old, species very suited to our region in that they require no summer irrigation or special maintenance, and which have no apparent threat to great longevity, and would consider cutting them down. The Canary island pines on the Haussler property are probably six decades old. You can certainly put an arborists’ value on that, and the dollar value of an old healthy tree of a desirable species will surprise you. But you can’t replace six decades of growth.

      Every effort should be made to protect healthy trees that were planted by previous generations. They have historic value and provide diversity that is very important to a city’s tree population. When you see very old trees that are many decades, or even centuries old, you ask how that happened. The answer: luck, good plant selection (right species, right place), and conservation by people who cared about them.

      New pests and diseases come along and kill off certain species. Sudden oak death is killing oaks all along the coast. California white alders were killed out of Davis in the 1980’s. Maintaining species diversity and healthy old trees is important.

      To somehow minimize that value because they are not native species seems very short-sighted to me. There are several species of trees from Mediterranean climates that have been widely planted locally over the last few generations. Cork oak (Quercus suber) is a non-native that is very well adapted here. There are trees reaching great size and girth from the 1940’s. Others include Canary Island date palms, Deodar cedars, other oak species, and more.

      These are important parts of our tree canopy, or what arborists like to call the “urban forest.” In many instances, non-native trees will be more successful and more adaptable than native types because of the nature of urban habitats. Many trees that are native to other regions and plant communities in California are simply not suited to the Valley soils, and are often very finicky about summer irrigation. The actual list of tree species truly native to our plant community (Valley Grassland) or the nearby one (Oak Woodland) is surprisingly short.

      I would like developers and planners to look at a site with old trees, and ask ‘how can I protect these’ rather than just seek a dollar cost to replace them. Mitigation should be a last resort, not the first consideration. You can always rearrange the placement, size, or density of a new development. It takes more care to preserve the trees.

      1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

        Perhaps I can give this a context that you, as a supporter of preserving historical buildings, can appreciate. This is like saying they should just pay a small fee for tearing down century-old buildings, and then build replicas of them somewhere else in town.

        I can appreciate that if I believed those pine tree varietals were unique or uniquely valuable. Perhaps you know their value better than I do. However, just being 60 years old does not mean too much if they are common or otherwise provide no greater civic value associated with that property. For comparison sake, we have a 50 year old Fruitless Mulberry on my property and a couple of 50 year old Chinese Hackberries*. All of those trees are definitely valuable (as shade) for my house. But does that mean that the residents outside my immediate neighborhood need to be compensated for their loss? I don’t think so.

        Again, trees can be very valuable to the city as a whole. For example, the 175 year old oak tree at 501 Oak is valuable far beyonds its size and age. It is the reason Oak Avenue has its name, and it gave shape to that entire development.

        FWIW, I found this in the web packet regarding mitigation for the loss of trees on the Paso Fino buffer:

        The applicant has proposed mitigation measures, which the City Arborist has found to be consistent with the applicable Municipal Code requirements relative planting of replacement trees and in lieu fee payment. The proposed trees replacement mitigation measures equates to approximately $54,125 in net tree mitigation (at $125 per inch of mitigated tree), or approximately 433 net inches of trees. The applicant is proposing a combination of on-site and off-site trees planting mitigation. In the Original Plan A, the applicant proposed payment of partial in lieu fees (approximately 188 inches, or $23,500), and plant off-site trees to accommodate about 245 inches of trees (or $30,625). This plan was reviewed and approved by the City of Davis’ Urban Forest Director, Rob Cain, who will oversee its implementation.

        *One of my hackberries is our street tree, so I could not remove it without city approval. Also, it definitely has value beyond my property. After 50 years, finally, it has grown large enough to meet the hackberries (2 of them) across the street, which provides very good summer shade. And FWIW, we do not have a problem with the hackberries on Cornell Drive in terms of dropping sap. Our bigger problem is some of them have been hacked up badly where they conflict with overhead power lines, which is a real shame.

  11. Anon

    The fact of the matter is that environmentalists are beginning to see the problems with demanding tighter infill – it results in the loss of open space. There are trade-offs to having tighter infill, e.g. harder to include Universal Design elements, less open space. Either one accepts urban sprawl; or one accepts infill, warts and all, to avoid urban sprawl.

    1. Davis Progressive

      you made this point before, but were shown to be inaccurate on it. there are ways to do higher density without encroaching on either open space or greenbelt features. people provided you examples, you seem to have ignored them.

      1. Anon

        As a general principle, tighter infill leaves less room for open space (never said you can’t have any open space). Urban sprawl leaves plenty of room for open space. You just cannot have a lot of open space with tight infill.

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