In a rare show of unity on a contentious issue, in the end, the neighbors, the community (except for one), city staff and ultimately the Davis City Council were on the same page – they were appreciative of efforts by both neighbors and developer to compromise, but supportive of the staff-developed Plan D.
The council supported Plan D 5-0, despite continued warning by the developers that it was unworkable. “The city’s Plan D you cannot build one house on any of those lots,” Dave Taormino, one of the applicants, told council following public comment. “Yes it’s very pretty, but no one measured the driveways, no one took into consideration the 40 foot worth of easements on the western side. So while it’s pretty, it’s not buildable.”
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs made the motion to support the staff recommendation, seconded by Mayor Dan Wolk.
Staff had argued that, while they appreciate the efforts of the applicant to respond to concerns about trees and preservation of greenbelts, the latest proposal “does not go far enough to address the concerns raised.”
They argue that the proposal “attempts to fit relatively large homes on Lots 6, 7, and 8 resulting in a tight lot configuration, especially with respect to the Canary Island Pines and greenbelt parcel. The configuration results in an indentation in the greenbelt parcel, which raises safety and maintenance concerns.”
Moreover, they also raise concerns about the proximity of the pines to the homes, which they say “creates concerns for the ongoing health of the trees.”
Councilmember Frerichs told Mr. Taormino, “The applicants in this case, you want guidance from the council on what we want to see as acceptable, to me the alternative concept Plan D is what I see acceptable – six units and preservation of publicly owned land is my priority.”
“It comes down to a judgment call for me,” he said. “In this case it’s kind of a Goldilocks situation where it’s not too many units, not too few… but what’s the right number of units. In this particular infill site, that balances the need of the neighborhood as well as preserves the open space, so I think for me, the six units is just the right amount.”
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis noted that he is getting diverging information, with the developer saying that Plan D will not work while staff says “it probably could work.” He said, “As a result of that, I do what I think I must do and I go to staff’s recommendation.” He argued that they work hard, are knowledgeable, have integrity, “I have to trust them at the end of the day.”
“In a case like this, I’m going to have to support the staff recommendation,” he said.
Councilmember Brett Lee raised several concerns more globally. He said, “If we’re going to change the existing zoning there needs to be a compelling reason to.”
Councilmember Lee raised the concern that, when people moved into Wildhorse, there was a city-owned buffer. “It’s reasonable to assume that a city-owned buffer will remain a city-owned buffer,” he said. So he argued that if the applicant wants to make use of a city-owned property, the “threshold needs to be a little higher than normal.”
Technically, he said, we are either selling or swapping this greenbelt. He feels bad that the applicant has “gone through this gauntlet when I think fundamentally the underlying issue has not been resolved. That is, what are we comfortable with with this land that is designated as a greenbelt?”
He suggested we separate that issue and give the applicant a clear picture of what we expect here. He said our first decision is, “We have land designated as a greenbelt, what is our policy for selling that?” He suggested we make a determination based not only on this parcel but also in general terms.
“I’m not really comfortable with this idea that we’re selling or swapping a greenbelt, that’s my sticking point,” he added.
However, other councilmembers seemed less concerned about this specific issue. “I’m really not worried about this becoming a precedent,” Mayor Pro Tem Davis stated. “This is clearly a unique thing in our city.” He added, “You said it in your staff report, the city does not sell greenbelts.”
“We can acknowledge that this is a unique situation. It was a buffer designed for a very specific purpose, at a very specific point in time and that time has passed and we’re going to do something a little bit different, it’s out of the ordinary, it’s unique,” he said.
Rochelle Swanson added, “This isn’t something that’s going to set precedent.” She said there is no comment on record that would suggest “that this council or anyone is in the business of selling greenbelts.”
Public comment was overwhelmingly in favor of the staff recommendation. Alan Pryor noted that the Sierra Club heard overwhelming community opposition to the Paso Fino development, in part due to the “insufficient protection for the large Canary Pines and a proposed land swap in the absence of a city policy governing such transactions.” He noted that the group has not heard from so many of its members since the water project – and on the water project the membership was largely split.
He noted that there has been substantial movement by the developers, but “we don’t believe it has been sufficient to overcome the objections of the neighbors and our original concerns.”
Alan Fernandes, a member of the school board and a resident of Sargent Court, was appreciative of the applicant communicating with the residents. However, he said, “I think the staff hit it out of the park with the staff-prepared concept D.” He called it a compromise, noting that “it’s not everything I would want.”
He added, “When you’re purchasing city land, those kinds of comparisons have to be weighed.”
Claudia Morain, also of Sargent Court, has publicly spearheaded the effort by the neighbors, calling the land “a greenbelt that we treasure.” She said, “There has been a lot of compromise and we appreciate it, but all of the compromise has been to give back land that the developer doesn’t own.”
Eileen Samitz argued that the developer’s proposal, D2, “does not work.” She called Plan D “clearly the solution as to how to develop the site.” She called it good planning, “consistent with our General Plan and our General Planning Guidelines.” She mentioned consistency with the neighborhood as well as protection of the Canary Pines and their dripline.
“It keeps these trees on public land, that’s key to their preservation,” she added. Ms. Samitz added that six units or less are critical to the site. “More than six units does not work,” she stated.
The one resident to speak out in favor of the developer’s proposal was Ron Glick. He stated that he remembers the battle over Wildhorse, “and some of the people in this room were totally against Wildhorse. In other words, they didn’t want you to have your homes.” He added, “You laugh (in response to chuckles) but it sounds like you don’t want someone else to move next to you.”
As Mr. Glick continued, he began to be heckled by some in the audience. “Go ahead laugh at me, someone’s got to do it, someone’s got to speak the truth,” he chided the audience. “The truth is there’s one tree that might be Swainson’s Hawk [habitat], that’s all you got?”
“I really feel sorry for the Taorminos,” he said as the audience groaned. He noted that the land was for sale and purchased on the open market, and “they’re coming up for a plan for their property. If you value it that much, why don’t you buy it? You live in Wildhorse, I imagine you could probably come up with the money.”
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson admonished the audience. “The tenor reminds me of when I first got on council and it’s a really different time in our community. I think we need to respect everyone’s views no matter who they are and there’s no place for boos or laughing.”
Developer Dave Taormino got a chance to respond to comments from the public. He criticized the city for cutting down Canary Pine trees in West Davis for a bike path. “Isn’t it interesting that after 18 months, there hasn’t been one example from 12,000 homeowners in Davis, of homeowners abusing their trees. Not one example. They’ve done all this research for 18 months and all the examples have been the government not taking care of the trees,” he said.
Jason Taormino made the point that there would not be an incredible change if they go from eight down to six in terms of neighborhood impacts. He suggested while technically it was feasible to decrease the house sizes slightly, he felt that those changes would greatly impact the marketability of the homes.
He said, “It just feels like it’s a punish the developer. It feels like we did four before, we should do six. Trying to do a real estate development where I think it’s more likely that we lose money than we make money, that’s really the challenge that we face.”
“It’s possible (to go to six), but I look at this and I say, I’m totally uncomfortable with it,” he added.
Councilmember Frerichs asked Mr. Taormino, “Do you want a vote on this tonight?”
Mr. Taormino responded, “I don’t think we can negotiate a deal with staff on their plan. I don’t think that’s their role. I think they need direction.” He asked for input.
Toward the end of his remarks, Councilmember Frerichs responded to Jason Taormino.
“I know the comment was made that this was sort of the punish the developer process,” said the councilmember. “I take umbrage with that… You have done 11 successful infill projects throughout the community of Davis. I’m confident that six units is feasible and workable for all parties.”
Council would unanimously support the staff recommendation. The question now is whether the applicants will attempt to make a six-unit project work or whether they will let the parcel lie vacant as the previous owners ended up doing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting