This week, the Davis City Council unanimously passed a motion that supported the concept of an urban farm, while at the same time deeming that the 25-acre Mace parcel was suitable for the development of a community farm.
And yet, I cannot help but to come away with the distinct feeling that the time for a community farm has passed.
Councilmember Brett Lee wanted to take the 25-acre Mace property, owned by the city, out of the innovation park proposal. He went so far as to call it a dodge, and made a motion to not include the 25-acre city-owned parcel in the East Innovation Park proposal.
The staff was able to quickly shoot that idea down, arguing that, for the purposes of the EIR, it is easier to include additional parcels and then cut them out rather than exclude the parcel and add them in later. Fair enough, and that was sufficient to get Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis to withdraw his second and take the council back to the drawing board.
I think Councilmember Lee brought up one of the more powerful points of the evening that has since been ignored – if the council ends up including the 25-acre parcel in the measure that goes before the voters, they will have made a similar mistake to the one made with Mace 391.
As Brett Lee put it, “I think the danger of including the 25-acre parcel is there would be I believe additional opposition created to this east innovation park proposal that includes as part of the proposal turning this open space parcel into tech park. It creates an added opposition to the plan.”
The problem is that, despite the votes by council, I am not convinced that they are really married to the concept of an urban or community farm.
As Councilmember Lucas Frerichs put it, “I want to leave (the 25 acres) in for the purposes of the EIR. It does not in any shape or form abandon the notion of the community farm either at that location or some other location in the city.”
He disputed the notion that this vote would signal the abandonment of the notion of community farms.
At the same time, both he and Rochelle Swanson expressed real concerns for the location. He cited the problem in general as having a lack of access. He said there is really no pedestrian and bike access “So it’s untenable for me moving in the direction of the community farm.”
Rochelle Swanson commented that there are now other sites that make more sense. “This particular site causes me concern because of the distance, the lack of bike and ped access.”
There are a number of good reasons, however, to continue to pursue the community farm concept. The Cannery project contains a small urban farm that is set to be run for the Center for Land-Based Learning. This is certainly an intriguing idea that seems to be working well in places like West Sacramento. But this would not be a place for community-involved agriculture.
For me, at least, I like the idea of a community farm where we could grow organic and farm fresh produce that would become part of a community asset. I like the idea of an educational component, a community involvement, the ability for the community to enjoy this asset as open space.
I really do believe that the city council shares this vision, but I worry that the perfect will become the enemy of the good here.
To use another cliché, possession may be ninth-tenths of the law, but it is nearly 100 percent of land use decisions.
To put it simply, this locale may not be perfect, but it would have a number of things going for it. First, it would be a good-sized chunk of land that is, while not currently adjacent to town, pretty darn close and, if the innovation park becomes reality, it would in fact be adjacent.
Second, the city already owns the land. We don’t have to find new land, we don’t have to purchase new land, we don’t have to swap new land. As Brett Lee put it, “In general we have this opportunity for extremely low cost to have this open space fully accessible.”
There is a third point that I think we need to elevate – part of the innovation future of this community is going to be in agricultural technology, the expansion of food justice, and farm-to-fork notions, as well development of sustainable agriculture.
As the Mace Ranch Innovation Center proposal suggests, “The site, given its size and location, is suitable for research programs for green technology and sustainable agricultural research.” The applicants noted “the agrarian nature of the site” and wrote, “There are tremendous opportunities to support sustainable food research, agricultural energy, environment, health, and innovative ways to bring new technologies and products to market.”
In a very real way then, the community farm would be an ideal addition to that concept, and would help to create a better transition to the ag-urban boundary that will be present in this location.
I think we need to be mindful that the best options may well be the options that are currently on the table. I am particularly mindful of this because, back in 2007 or so, we had a long and protracted discussion about whether to put the sport park on the city-owned Howatt Ranch.
The reasons cited to oppose it were the distance from the city and the inability for kids and their parents to walk or bike to the sport park. These were very valid concerns. However, it should be pointed out that, eight years later, we still don’t have a sports park and one does not appear to be very imminent.
Howatt Ranch had a lot of drawbacks but it had one main advantage – it was available. The result is that a decade of children are not going to have access to newer and better facilities because the proposed site had clear problems.
We have the same issue, potentially, with the Mace 25 land.
Mayor Pro Tem Davis said, “It’s not ready to be made into a farm just yet – it’s just not.” He noted, “It’s not connected to anything. It’s not connected to our city.”
However, if the innovation park goes forward, suddenly it could be connected to the city. Robb Davis acknowledged that that is a “big if” because the innovation park would have to be approved by a vote from the people.
“But what I want to signal very clearly is that I want that option to remain on the table,” he said.
My concern is that I suspect that, if we do not start moving forward toward planning it as a community farm, the opportunity will pass us by and the alternative sites will never actually materialize.
Again – I reiterate, I believe that the wishes expressed by all five councilmembers to be sincere ‒ I just think that the land that we have available is a better option than the hope that new options will materialize magically that we do not see today.
I agree with the idea of flexibility, but I would have preferred to see more affirmative steps to making the farm become a reality. As it stands now, I fear that this is far from the affirmation of the community farm concept, but rather its death knell. Hopefully I will be proven wrong on this account.
—David M. Greenwald reporting