This past Tuesday, the Davis City Council may or may not have put to rest the issue of Paso Fino. The council sided unanimously with the staff report and the neighbors against the developers in approving Plan D – a six-unit project.
Earlier this week, we had a discussion about infill, noting that, since the adoption of the General Plan in May 2001 and the passage of Measure J in 2000 and its renewal in 2010 in the form of Measure R, the city has tended to “focus growth inward to accommodate population increases. Infill development is supported as an appropriate means of meeting some of the city’s housing needs” (2001 General Plan, page 57).
However, as we argued on Tuesday, the city’s infill policies are not going to, in the long run, provide much in the way of additional housing or prevent pressure for urban sprawl.
Some of the commenters on Tuesday made reference to the city’s infill guidelines, which appear to have never been completed. Land use documents for Chiles Ranch, for instance, still made reference to the city’s “Interim Infill Guidelines.”
The General Plan (page 77) references, “To ensure compliance with the overall intent of this General Plan Update, however, the City shall limit the number of additional duplexes, multiple single family dwellings on one lot, or multi-family dwellings proposed on land zoned R-2 that may be approved until the infill guidelines and strategies contained in this plan are completed.”
A 2005 staff report on J Street Infill notes, “The General Plan Land Use Goal LU2.1 required the development of infill guidelines. The proposed project has been evaluated for conformance and, as conditioned, meets the existing guidelines.”
The 2001 General Plan notes, “In January 1996, at the request of General Plan committees, the City completed an ‘Infill Potential Study’ as a technical analysis supporting the General Plan Update. The study examined the potential for infill development as an alternative to accommodating growth through expansions to City boundaries.”
They were able to assess 36 potential sites, which presented the possibility of 1000 residential units and 300,000 square feet of retail and office use.
“Infill is defined as urban development or redevelopment on vacant or ‘underutilized’ urban-designated land within a city’s boundaries, as an alternative to accommodating growth through expansions of city boundaries,” the General Plan continues.
“Underutilized” urban-designated land is defined as “developed or partially developed urban-designated land which could be developed in other uses or more dense and intense use consistent with City policies, surrounding uses and potential impact issues.”
They note, “Vacant and urban-designated lands do not include non-urban designations such as Agriculture, Urban Agriculture Transition Area, Parks, Natural Habitat, Greenbelts and Greenstreets, nor creeks, sloughs or channels.”
The city may not have an explicit policy against developing greenbelts, but it seems pretty obvious from the language in the 2001 General Plan that greenbelts are not considered urban-designated lands and, therefore, are not what they consider suitable for development.
The council spent some time on Tuesday discussing whether the council needs more explicit direction on the greenbelt issue.
“We have land designated as a greenbelt, what is our policy for selling that?” Councilmember Brett Lee 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.”
With that said, it seems we need to have more explicit guidelines. Right now this is a patchwork approach. Jason Taormino made reference to the idea that council was punishing the developers – I think that comment was poorly placed. However, as we noted on Tuesday there has long been concern about the “capricious” and “arbitrary” nature of development in Davis.
So why not have the council develop a new infill process that lays out issues like density, trees, greenbelts, and handling the neighbor process? Make the discussion of infill development more predictable.
It is also worth noting that the last General Plan was passed back in 2001. There have been both political and budgetary reasons to delay developing a new General Plan, but I think now as we look at issues like infill, the possibility of peripheral innovation parks and the like, it is time that we address some of these issues in a more formal way.
These discussions should not presume an outcome. For instance, as I have observed the discussion over infill, I think what happened at Paso Fino was an incredible waste of time for the council, planning staff, and the community. It’s 6 to 8 units. At a time when the planning staff is complaining about being pulled too thin, how much time did they spend on an infill project that, at the end of the day, is not going to make a huge difference in the community?
I’m neither criticizing the applicant for trying to build a project nor the neighbors for having concerns over it, but rather, from a community perspective, I question the amount of time that this took at a time when there were many far more pressing issues.
Would a new policy resolve some of this? I hope so. We should build that policy with the lessons of Paso Fino in mind and, maybe then, the effort will not be naught.
One final point, I will reiterate some other points. One, if we were going to put housing at the Cannery, I think we had a lost opportunity in terms of putting in density and also workforce housing. Second, as we look at Nishi and attempt to address the circulation issues, I again think we should look at ways to meet more student housing needs.
Finally, as we look at the future of housing, I think we need to look at housing more from a regional level and understand that Davis may never be able to provide workforce housing at the cost or quantity needed, and therefore we need to look at a regional approach which means also addressing transportation issues.
—David M. Greenwald reporting