Commentary: Paso Fino and the Impact of Infill Housing on Larger Housing Issues

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Covell Village

On Sunday, in case you missed it, the Vanguard finally took a position on Paso Fino. The critical issue from our perspective was Don Shor’s assessment of the impact on the Canary Island Pines. Based on that, we believe that the developers should take the staff recommendation of Plan D or a modification thereof. They could also look at a configuration of eight units that takes into account Mr. Shor’s recommendation for small lot sizes on the eastern side of the proposed development.

The criticism of the development on this property has largely focused on two issues: one, the city’s lack of policy guidelines for the sale or transfer of publicly held greenbelt lands and, two, the city’s policies for retaining mature trees.

In this discussion, I would like to address the city’s broader policy on housing and infill. A few days ago the local paper summarized some of the concerns that the developers have expressed to the Vanguard, as well: “On the developers’ side, they wonder if the city actually is serious about preventing urban sprawl and focusing on its policies of infill development, or if local politicians will bend to the will of what they see as a sophisticated Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) campaign. They wonder why developers must go through the same fights again and again to build infill development in Davis?

The discussion has often focused on the “capricious” and “arbitrary” nature of development in Davis. While that is certainly a concern, at least for some, there is a bigger picture here and I will focus my discussion on the prevention of urban sprawl and the policies of infill development.

As we noted a few days ago, even absent the controls of Measure R, infill development in Davis is largely problematic. The problem that you face is that of change of circumstances. The point is easily illustrated with an example. If I buy a home in a neighborhood that is completely built out, I go in knowing what the environment is.

However, if I purchase a home next to a huge open space, an open space that we use to walk the dogs or play with the kids, and then a developer comes along and wants to develop it, that represents a change of circumstances. It is an impact on the neighborhood.

So, as we look to build housing through infill, we will continue to run into these sorts of problems. We are going to end up putting in more density than perhaps the neighbors want, soaking up the spaces that they previously utilized for leisure and recreation, and taking away the trees that provide shade, aesthetics and atmosphere.

The more pro-development crowd will argue, well, if we are going to preclude peripheral housing through onerous Measure R requirements then we need to have liberal policies for infill and densification.

My response to that is not necessarily. At Paso Fino we are talking about six, eight, or in one plan with four ADUs, 12 units. To be quite frank, the difference between six and 12 units is not going to do anything to prevent urban sprawl. It just won’t.

And while we can pack more infill in and densify, at the end of the day, the housing situation is not going to change very much. There were things we could have done to build more housing. We could have increased the density at Cannery Park, where we settled for about 600 units. We could increase the number of multifamily and high density units at Nishi if we can figure out how to deal with traffic impacts.

Finally, we could look at urban housing and mixed use at the innovation parks, but everyone is concerned that housing at the parks will doom the project.

The bottom line is that, unless we look toward increased density on the larger parcels of land, we are essentially nickel and diming at the expense of the neighbors and lowering their quality of life. People are not going to take that lying down, they have savvy and resources to fight these projects and, if they have a strong enough case, they may well prevail. And even if they do not prevail, they can delay.

My point here is not to take sides in this fight. It is only to argue that a six to 12 unit infill project is not going to make a huge difference to the city in terms of housing needs and, therefore, we ought to make sure we do right by the people who have invested their life savings into these homes.

The other point I would make is that, once again, we are operating in an ad hoc fashion. We are engaging in development by piecemeal.

We don’t have a General Plan update to guide an overall vision. We ought to be able to identify our goals for housing – how many, where do we put them, how densely do we pack them?

We don’t have a recent policy for trees, density, neighborhood impacts – we need to identify places for infill and recommend densities for those, and processes to deal with issues like trees and greenbelts.

Are we ever going to develop on the periphery? If so, where, how much and when?

We may not reach consensus as a community on these issues. For years, the council would bounce back and force between slow growthers and real slow growthers. But at least we would have the parameters laid out for the discussion.

As one poster wrote, “I don’t particularly have a dog in this fight, but I am deeply concerned about the unwieldy process that is developing, in which the loudest voices and not necessarily the majority of citizens get their way, and where some city policies are totally ignored in favor of some new standard devised by a small group of angry citizens.  This does not bode well for the future, especially with the innovation parks coming along soon.  I think the City Council and city staff need to do some deep soul searching here, and think through how to develop a much fairer process.”

I think that’s right. We need a fair process even if we do not ultimately agree on what the solution should look like.

But one thing I know, whether Paso Fino comes in with six or eight units, the problem of sprawl and development will remain.

—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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12 Comments

  1. Anon

    one the city’s lack of policy guidelines for the sale or transfer of publicly held greenbelt lands…

    Sorry to be insistent and nitpicky, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether the issue in this project is about “greenbelts” (neighbors view) or “buffers” (city’s view).  And there is a major difference between the two.

    We don’t have a General Plan update to guide an overall vision. We ought to be able to identify our goals for housing – how many, where do we put them, how densely do we pack them?
    We don’t have a recent policy for trees, density, neighborhood impacts, we need to identify places for infill and recommend densities for those and processes to deal with issues like trees and greenbelts.

    Spot on!  And the City Council needs to stick to whatever policies it decides on, not pick and choose whether to institute policies depending on the developer or the project.  I understand that it is good to have some flexibility depending on circumstances, but when the city consistently does not apply policies with an even hand, the process is not fair.

    1. Matt Williams

      Anon, I agree with you that there is a difference between greenbelts and buffers; however, the City has in effect volunteered to muddy that difference by having only a single greenbelt designation that covers both. That was opening the door to controversy.

      With that said, it is very interesting to look at Planning Commissioner Marilee Hanson’s list of similar sites in Davis that might be affected by any precedent set in the Paso Fino situation. Those sites are listed in the Multimedia portion of the http://www.davisgreenbelts.org website. They are

      Central Davis – Shady canopy on a stretch of public green space near the Davis Senior Center in Central Davis — Is this green space a buffer or a greenbelt? If it is a buffer, what is it buffering, and is that buffering still actively happening?

      Central Davis – Small park shaded by a canopy of mature trees near City Hall — Is this small park a buffer or a greenbelt? If it is a buffer, what is it buffering, and is that buffering still actively happening?

      Covell Gardens – This trail, designated as greenbelt, starts at a more traditional greenbelt near Covell Gardens, runs through neighborhoods, and connects to a more traditional greenbelt in Northstar. — Is this trail a buffer or a greenbelt? If it is a buffer, what is it buffering, and is that buffering still actively happening?

      Hacienda Park – Small park in North Davis surrounded by housing development. — Is this park a buffer or a greenbelt? If it is a buffer, what is it buffering, and is that buffering still actively happening?

      North Davis – Small oasis of Green on Anderson in Northstar — Is this oasis a buffer or a greenbelt? If it is a buffer, what is it buffering, and is that buffering still actively happening?

      West Davis – Green space off Anderson just north of Cesar Chavez School. — Is this green space a buffer or a greenbelt? If it is a buffer, what is it buffering, and is that buffering still actively happening?

      1. hpierce

        Instead of “smelling the roses”, people should use their sense of smell to detect BS.  The video clip is telling.  The speaker first says that everything cited is within a half a mile of City offices (patently untrue).  Then the speaker reiterates (?) that everything shown is within 30 minutes of travel.  First whiff. The first picture shown is of the ‘picnic area’ used by City and County offices staff.  A part of those two projects’ ‘open space’ requirements.  Second whiff.  I could probably debunk most of the others as well, but can’t get the video up to a size where I could recognize those places sufficiently to fully document BS.

        Matt… as to “blaming the City for the confusion”.  Let’s see, the most knowledgable people who were around when the Wildhorse buffer parcel was created, have retired/moved on.  I can assure all that it was NOT a greenbelt, as having designated public access was anathema to the desires of the developer and the City to buffer the elder Hausslers from the Wildhorse development (to avoid a “stink”… pun intended).  Any City staff who called it a “greenbelt” were ignorant of the facts.  Parks wanted to rid itself of an area that needed to be maintained, and posed a possible liability to the City (legal and fiscal).  In the first iteration (the 4 unit one, five years ago), staff sought to trade the land for additional open space along Covell, which could have provided more room to relocate the bikepath so it wasn’t right up against the curb on Covell, requiring a physical barrier, and to generate money for the portion of the swap that wasn’t 1:1.  The closest thing to a greenbelt (bike/ped path) was on the WEST side of the site, aligning well with the intersection of Covell & Manzanita. That is going “bye-bye” now, and any intelligent person would be more concerned with THAT.  Those who call the “buffer” a greenbelt,are, quite frankly, “revisionists” (or just ignorant of how we got here).  Period, end of comment.

        Matt… if you want more details, give me a call. Wish you had before you posted this, but when you did, I needed to respond in this forum. We still owe each other a coffee.

        1. Matt Williams

          pierce, I suspect if you and I had talked before I posted, my post would not have changed.

          First, think of the questions I asked above as my own personal form of fragrance detection.  I prefer to let people discover things rather than telling them things.

          Second, whether the terminology is “blaming the City for the confusion” or “the City has in effect volunteered to muddy that difference” the reality (confirmed by me in personal conversation with Mike Webb several weeks ago) is that regardless of the reasons, and regardless of the facts on the ground, the official legal designation of this particular buffer (which I have absolutely zero doubt that it always has been) is as a Greenbelt.  It is designated on City maps as a greenbelt.  Further, there is no “buffer” designation in the City of Davis General Plan.  Bottom-line, someone, ore someones, chose to decide that “the facts” did not warrant taking the necessary steps to recognize this property for what it very clearly was … a buffer for the Hausslers.

          I am very glad you have posted the additional detail that you have, because it illuminates the nuance that is central to this whole issue.

          For what it is worth, if I were Solomon faced with this decision, I would probably be inclined to place all of the Pines on private property rather than City property, with very clear deed restrictions written into the deeds of the private lots containing the trees.  I would also go beyond the deed restrictions and establish a fine structure for “death by neglect or willful damage” that would apply to each tree … the fines would start at $25,000 per tree that dies in the first year and reduce $500 per year.  Therefore in 2065 the fine for a dying tree would have reduced to $0.  I use that sliding scale because the arborist’s report seems to indicate that 50 more years of life is probably all those trees will experience, even under ideal conditions.  The reason I propose this solution is that the actual owners of each of the trees would truly have a financial incentive to tailor the lifestyle they lead on their property to the life needs of the trees.  Having the City own the trees provides no guarantees that they will be optimally cared for.  Public maintenance of the alley of trees along West Russell has not resulted in a positive outcome for those trees … or for the Davis citizens who have enjoyed driving under the long canopy of those trees.  A private solution aligns responsibility and benefit … and the fines system gives that alignment “teeth.”

          1. Don Shor

            The fines would start at $25,000 per tree that dies in the first year and reduce $500 per year. Therefore in 2065 the fine for a dying tree would have reduced to $0.

            The value of the trees doesn’t decline that way. In fact, ten years from now they will probably be higher value than they are today.
            I disagree with your suggestion, which echoes the long criticism by the Taorminos at the planning commission hearing, that public ownership is less optimal than private ownership of the trees. Putting them on private property, IMO, puts them at greater risk of changes to the grade, irrigation, and management of the trees by a succession of private owners. Their neglect or harm would likely not be intentional. It results from adding structures, pouring concrete, changing the watering, compacting the soil by foot traffic, etc. Leaving them on a protected area of soil that is minimally changed is the most likely way to conserve them successfully.

          2. Matt Williams

            Don, thank you for the feedback. The fine structure certainly should be adjusted to match the expected remaining life span of the trees … and I chose $25,000 as a starting point to be a high enough amount to ensure that the property owners are paying attention due to the significant fiscal pain that they would incur if a bad outcome happens. I haven’t talked to the Taorminos, and missed that planning commission meeting.

            With that said, what I am hearing you say is that you trust the City’s Tree Maintenance Department to do a better job of protecting these trees from the damaging effects of changes to the grade, irrigation, and management of the trees than you or me or any other individual as private owners. Is a succession of private owners any different than a succession of City tree maintenance employees and/or a succession of third-party outsourced tree maintenance employees? Isn’t “succession” inevitable in either case?

            With those questions asked, what I hear you saying is that a private yard will be subject to foot traffic and public land will not … and as such the risk of damaging soil compaction will be substantially less in the public land situation. Am I hearing you correctly?

          3. Don Shor

            The city is much less likely to install a shed, pour a patio, add a room, have a play structure, use a slip’n’slide, put in a lawn, build a water structure, add a path that blocks water flow, reroute downspouts from the roof, have a large number of kids playing in a small area, put in a dog kennel, add a chicken coop, etc.

            The city is, in fact, much less likely to do anything at all under the trees.

            Actual maintenance of these trees is minimal. There is greater likelihood of harm from homeowners trying to reduce the nuisance of needle drop, cone drop, drip of sap, or trying to increase sunlight.

            So damage to the trees from homeowners is more likely than it is from city personnel.

          4. Matt Williams

            Crisp clear and compelling answers Don. Seems pretty clear that my idea was not as compelling as I originally thought it might be. You have convinced me that “damage to the trees from homeowners is more likely than it is from city personnel.”

  2. Davis Progressive

    i don’t think the difference between a buffer and a greenbelt is that big an issue. the bigger issue is whether we are giving public land to developers and to what end.  i think david does a great job of reframing the issue here.  the issue is not infill versus peripheral because in the end, infill is filling in some margins, it’s rather what we want the city to look like.  and we have no (recent) general plan so of course everything looks ad hoc – it is and that is where both developers and residents get burned.

    1. hpierce

      “… are giving public land to developers…”  I assume you mean “selling” @ fair market value assuming SFR zoning.  If the proposal, in your mind IS “giving”, either you are horribly mis-informed, or someone at the City is potentially criminally planning to make a “gift of public funds”, as the land is a tangible asset and has monetary value.

      Please tell me you meant “selling”.

    2. Anon

      DP: “and we have no (recent) general plan so of course everything looks ad hoc – it is and that is where both developers and residents get burned.”

      Spot on!

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