Guest Commentary: Time to Revisit Our “Open Space” Measures



By Jeff Boone

It was during the mid-late 1990s when the Wildhorse and Mace Ranch housing developments provoked the voter backlash that led to the passing of Measure O (Open Space Protection Special Tax Fund) and Measure J  (Citizens Right To Vote On Future Use Of Open Space And Agricultural Lands).

For those that don’t know about these two voter-approved changes to City land use policy: Measure O – a new 30-year term, $24 per year supplemental parcel tax that would allow the city to purchase surrounding open space to prevent unwanted development on our periphery – passed its 2/3 voter approval threshold 70.5% to 29.5% in 2000.   Measure J – requiring an ongoing 50% +1 vote majority to approve annexation of peripheral land for development – passed its 50%+1 voter approval threshold 53.6% to 46.3% in 2000, and was later renewed as Measure R, passing 76.7% to 23.3% in 2010.

Since about 1975, after a previous three decades of aggressive population growth, Davis residents have generally favored and achieved slow growth.  The City’s General Plan was updated to include specific language to provide for limited growth only “to meet internal needs of households whose work or study activities are or have been focused in Davis.”  Since 1975 Davis has experienced a population growth rate much lower than that of the region.

But then the 1990s’ Wildhorse and Mace Ranch developments inflamed concerns that developer special interests had too much control and could circumvent voter slow-growth demands, and that greater voter-control of peripheral land was needed.  Voters approved these two measures in 2000 and during the subsequent 15 years there has been no significant peripheral development.

Ironically enough for me, this slow growth period started about the exact same time I moved to Davis and later met a beautiful, smart and sweet local girl that I would marry and together we would raise two wonderful sons.

Forty years have gone by really quickly; but as they say, times have really changed.  And, as times change, so do the impacts of our previous policy decisions. It is for this reason that we should periodically revisit our assumptions and ask if we are still being well-served by our historical policy decisions… especially those that control our land use.

There are things we know today that we did not know in 2000 when we approved these initiatives, and even in 2010 when we renewed Measure J in an overwhelming majority vote for Measure R.

These include:

City financial problems

The Great Recession of 2008 was a time of fiscal reckoning for the entire country and much of the global economy.  It laid bare the challenges previously hidden or denied by those enabled by the wild exuberance of easy money from the bubble of real estate financing and equity returns.  Davis, like many cities, quickly headed into a post-recession budget crash… tax receipts plunged while expenses continued to grow.  The surpluses we had previously saved vanished quickly.  City leadership was forced to cut city staff and reduced some employee benefit expenses and a temporary sales tax increase was passed.

But during this time the residents of the city started paying more attention to City finances.  The painful layoffs of some city employees, cuts to employee benefits, the leaking city pools, the cracked and potholed roads and rutted bike paths, the poorly maintained parks… all of these things helped awaken a greater interest in understanding the true financial situation of the city.

And that understanding became, frankly, alarming.

What we learned is that Davis faces hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded future expenses for employee retirement benefits, and deferred road and infrastructure maintenance.  Previous city leaders had “kicked the fiscal can down the road” increasing the pay and benefits of city labor, while reducing the needed spending on these other needs.   These other needs became long-term unfunded liabilities that politicians simply did not want to deal with, and would leave for future city leaders and voters to deal with.

Inadequate local economy

With respect to our fiscal problems, we began to understand that Davis’s per capita tax revenue from business is significantly less than any comparable city.  In fact, Davis’s per capita sales tax revenue is only about half of the state average of all California cities.  And this does not take into consideration the Davis advantages of a relatively affluent fixed population plus the large seasonable “captive-consumer” UCD population.

Our stingy land use policies have expectedly slowed housing development; but they have also stifled  business and economic development that cannot exist without a location.

Chico, Santa Cruz and Palo Alto are three like-sized college towns with about the same population as Davis; however, all three have a much larger local economy than does Davis.  And all three benefit from a larger city general fund budget than does Davis.  In fact, Palo Alto’s general fund budget is three-times the size of Davis, even with a smaller local population.

Because Davis relies more on local property tax revenue, the City’s climb back to a post-recession balanced budget took much longer than it did for most other comparable cities.  Without a larger local economy, the next recession will cause a repeat of a slower than average recovery and greater financial pain.

Growing bedroom community

Since Davis put the brakes on growth over the last 40 years, because of the related lack of business development, it has become a greater source of commuter traffic.  About 50% of working residents work outside of Davis.  If you are one of the few lucky people to live AND work in our great city you will likely have already noted the rush hour traffic around the freeway on-ramps in the morning, and also noted all the cars coming back to Davis in the evening.

Our slow growth position – ostensibly driven by a strong dislike of traffic – actually generates more traffic because too many residents lack adequate employment and career opportunities in Davis.  This then contributes to more road congestion and more pollution as more people have to commute outside of Davis for their jobs.

Growing planning incompatibility with UCD

Forty years ago UCD was receiving a greater share of its operating funding from the State.  But ongoing state budget problems resulted in a reduction in funding to all state colleges; including UCD.  As a result tuition rates have been increased to help make up the difference.  However, the Governor and the legislature, responding to criticism from students and parents facing skyrocketing college education costs and mounting student debt, have mandated that the state universities stop raising tuition.  These changes have necessitated that UCD implements new funding strategies and plans.

At the same time UCD’s reputation as a world-class research university has grown.  The last three years UCD has been recognized as the top agriculture and food science college in the world!

The need for new funding combined with this global recognition has led UCD to seek new revenue sources from development of private-public partnerships for technology transfer.   This is not a new idea.  Other top universities in the country have been doing the same: leveraging the intellectual assets from academia to partner with innovation business in the private sector to develop new products and services that can be marketed for profit and return royalties to the university.

However, the innovation business needs to locate next to the university to generate the private-public creative synergy required.  Davis’s slow-growth policies have prevented the availability and use of land required for innovation business to locate here.  Consequently, Davis’s growth policies have become incompatible with UCD plans, and detrimental to its ongoing operational success.

Inadequate rental housing supply

In addition to a lack of business development, as UCD’s reputation as a world-class university has increased, so too has the demand for student attendance.   UCD has responded to this demand by beginning to grow by 600 students per year.

The current rental vacancy rate when school is in session is an alarming .3 percent.  This contrasts to 4.2 percent in 2005. The growing lack of rental capacity is due to the growth in the UCD student population combined with Davis’s land use policies that have prevented adequate rental housing development.

The shortage of rental properties also drives up the price as landlords respond to the principles of supply and demand.  Currently the average unit rent is $1,414.  This compares to $992 in 2005 when the vacancy rate was a more reasonable 4.2 percent.

The consequences of such high rent inflation are: greater student debt, more single-family homes converted to student rentals and more students living outside of Davis and commuting to and from Davis.

Also, inadequate student housing supplies causes a corresponding shortage of single family housing and other housing for UCD employees.  It also causes local business to struggle to attract and hire employees as the cost of housing exceeds their means, and commuting increases their monthly expenses.

UCD certainly shares some of the blame for inadequate housing supplies.  While other UC campuses manage close to 50% of all student-housing, UCD only covers about 30% of their need.  The City of Davis shares a larger student housing burden than do other cities hosting UC campuses.  It is clear that UCD should do more to cover student housing needs.

However, in consideration of the purpose and intent of the City’s slow growth and land use policies, if we are honest, it really does not make much difference if the City or UCD develop the needed housing.   Regardless if new housing is on UCD property or City-annexed peripheral land, it will be peripheral land.  It will have similar traffic and population impacts.  It will eliminate some open-space “viewscapes.”  It will change the look and feel of the city… although in my opinion much, much less than those more extremely opposed to growth would have us all believe.

In addition, if UCD develops the housing the city will receive zero fees and taxes from the development.  Lastly, if UCD develops the housing then UCD will have control over the planning and design.   Davis residents would have less of a say, and would face greater risks of having to accept peripheral development that they dislike.

Our land use policies combined with UCD growth have caused an alarming shortage of housing.  The impacts are many.  The solution is simple: allow the development of more rental housing.  But doing so will require voters eliminate the roadblocks for developing on peripheral land.

Congestion problem

The City of Davis has a population of 66,000 with 6,000 students living on campus.  That puts our population at 72,000.  Meanwhile, due to our past and present stingy land use policies, the geographic footprint of the town has stayed a meager 10 square miles.  7,200 people per square mile puts Davis’s population density closer to large urban areas than it does any medium-sized rural city.  For example, the population density of our neighbor Woodland is 3,264.  The population density of Santa Cruz (where property is also very expensive) is 3,800.  And when you consider that our retail footprint is on average much less than other comparable cities, we are really cramming a lot of people into a small area.

The result is growing congestion… especially downtown.

Even the problem of our homeless and panhandler population seems bigger in Davis as they all congregate in our small downtown.

Although we want a vibrant city and downtown, congestion is not a good thing.  Congestion keeps people away that might otherwise shop and spend money.  Congestion causes stress.  Congestion causes more pollution.   Congestion causes more accidents.

Davis downtown is one of the most challenging places to drive, bike or walk around without getting into an accident.   The primary reason is that we are very congested and population-dense.

And without peripheral development, if we are to deal with the lack of tax-revenue-generating business and the lack of rental housing, we will need to build taller buildings.  This then increases population density and congestion.  It is a consequence of our land-use policies, and we have to ask if we are really well served by them in consideration of growing congestion.

Millennial problem

Our land use policies have a disproportionate negative impact on millennials.   In fact many don’t move here, and for those that grew up here or attended UCD, many of them leave and never come back.  Davis’s growing demographic profile is increasingly both gray-haired and student-aged.

With already high and growing rents, and limited access to good jobs, Davis’s young people develop a gradual feeling that they are not wanted here.  Many that stay end up stuck in low-paying service jobs and struggle to make ends meet.

Local business that hires millennials faces problems attracting and retaining qualified workers.  And millennials lucky enough to land one of the few good jobs available complain about the lack of social life because of the dearth of other young professionals and young families.

Lastly, in an effort to hold on to these development-blocking land use policies and in recognition of the City financial problems, taxes have been increased, and future tax increases are being discussed.   While the more affluent older Davis residents can handle a larger tax burden, tax increases have a proportionately larger negative financial impact on young people just starting their careers.

Swapped developer special interests for extreme land preservation special interests

As a 40-year resident of this great city, I am certainly not in support of uncontrolled growth.  If allowed, I would vote down any mega-large peripheral housing development.  My vision for Davis is one where we allow some peripheral growth: primarily commercial (e.g., innovation parks that work closely with UCD and support its technology transfer strategy), and minimal-required rental housing to meet the needs of UCD growth and to contribute some housing supply to support regional growth.  But I want all of it absolutely designed and developed with state-of-the-art SMART principles.

Within the innovation parks I would support some retail.  Davis is large enough and the downtown busy enough that we can and should support more peripheral retail.  We need to relieve some of the congestion downtown, and return it to a pleasant and vibrant destination of choice.

But my expectations for the land-use policies of Measures O and J/R included usable open space.   There had been talk of a greenbelt surrounding the city.  Unfortunately none of the land acquired by our Measure O dollars is accessible.   And none of it is on the periphery of Davis.

I had envisioned more parks and accessible natural areas.  These have not happened even thought the city has spent millions on Measure O land acquisitions. Palo Alto for example is 26 square miles, but with 4,500 acres (7 square miles) of accessible parks including paths.  Contrast that to Davis, with a larger population, only 10 square miles, and only 400 acres of parks… a measly 10% of what Palo Alto has.

What has happened?

Unfortunately, with our remedies to take away control from developer special interests, we have given too much control to open space land preservation special interests.  Their pursuits don’t always align with voter’s best interests just as developers’ interests don’t always align with voter’s best interests.

Did we really want to ring the city in a farmland and natural habitat moat that we cannot access and where we become increasingly congested and negatively impacted?  Did we really want to force UCD to look to other parts of Yolo County and Solano County to build innovation parks to support their technology transfer strategy?

Did we really want to burden our young people, including college students struggling under huge student debt loans?

We all need to ask ourselves these questions and revisit our land-use policies.  Maybe the majority of Davis voters are happy with the way things are going.   Maybe they would support another $1000 per year parcel tax and more sales tax increases… both likely required to pay for all of our long-term liabilities assume we do no more can-kicking.  Maybe they don’t care about the number of local residents having to commute to and from their jobs.  Maybe they don’t care about the congestion and the impacts to young people.  Maybe they don’t care that the university will go elsewhere to execute their technology transfer strategy.  Maybe they are fine with UCD building housing on UCD-owned City-peripheral land instead of other peripheral land that allows the City would to exert more design control over.  Did we really want a city that lacks economic resiliency and will struggle more than others with each economic downturn?  Do we accept all of these things as a cost of preventing growth?

Some people might say “yes” to accepting all these things just to prevent growth.  After 40 years living here it is still hard for me to accurately guess what Davis voters want.

But we at least need to start asking these questions.  And if we are going down the wrong path with 40 years of slow and no-growth land-use demands, we need to make some changes.


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.

Related posts

18 thoughts on “Guest Commentary: Time to Revisit Our “Open Space” Measures”

  1. Don Shor

    Unfortunately none of the land acquired by our Measure O dollars is accessible.   And none of it is on the periphery of Davis.

    Probably the best example of Measure O funds that helped preserve farmland which is, in fact, publicly accessible is at Kidwell Overpass west of Davis. On the north side of Kidwell overpass the nearby land is carefully protected by ag conservation easements thanks, in part, to Measure O funds used in cooperation with funding from other agencies.

    There is a farmstand where you can buy fresh produce, berry pies, and more. There is a working hop vineyard, where you can see demonstration hop plantings. Harvest is done by volunteers; you can participate.


    The property on the east side of Kidwell is also being developed as a working farm with public access.

    1. SODA

      Good examples Don. The Enterprise articles were very interesting….

      David are you going to report on the allegations of ‘excessive administrative costs’ that were leveled at the CC meeting? I am confused as to what that was, how true it might be and how it impacts the Measure O funds. Is the allegation that the city’s admin costs were too high or ???

      Why do we have to log in so frequently lately in order to comment?  It seems like every other day we have to log in?  Something change or is it just me?

      1. Biddlin

        “Why do we have to log in so frequently lately in order to comment?”

        Moi aussi, SODA.

        Gotta check out that farm stand, too, thanks Don.


    2. Jeff Boone

      This a good start, but far short of the vision that many Davis residents had about Measure O open space acquisition, and orders of magnitude less than what other progressive land-use cities have done to provide usable land amenities for residents.

      For example, in Palo Alto:

      The City of Palo Alto has almost 4,000 acres of open space to explore, recreate and relax in. Whether you are looking for a place to picnic with your family, a site for a wedding, or trails that will help you to escape to nature, there is a broad assortment of open space areas to enjoy!

      Santa Cruz is another city that is surrounded by and manages thousands of acres of resident-accessible open space parks.

      In Chico:

      Bidwell Park was established July 20, 1905 through the donation by Annie Bidwell of approximately 2,500 acres of land to the City of Chico. Since that time, the City has purchased additional land, such as Cedar Grove in 1922, and 1,200 acres of land south of Big Chico Creek in Upper Park in 1995. Today, the total Park size is 3,670 acres (nearly 11 miles in length), making it one of the largest municipal parks in the United States.

      Davis residents approved a tax that is primarily benefiting non-peripheral agricultural land owners and land preservation special interests.  I don’t have a problem with farmland preservation and habitat preservation being part of the strategy, but except for this de minimis example you provided (how many acres?), there has been absolutely no land acquired with paths and access points to the city.

      One idea might be to augment our Measure O dollars with an Open Space Assessment District as an alternative to partnering with non-profits and federal programs with a single agenda of locking up land in permanent ag easements or permanent natural habitat protection.

      1. hpierce

        Best we realize that Manhatten’s Central Park, SF’s Golden Gate Park, Chico’s Bidwell Park, are not anything we can realistically aspire to.  0.00001 % chance of that happening.

        Measure O was/is more about the “moat”/urban buffer and/or growth/sprawl control than creating usable open/recreationl space.  Anyone who says differently either doesn’t understand, or prevericates.

        A significant number of the original Measure O proponents would love to exclude all backpackers from Desolation Wilderness, Hoover Wilderness, etc.  People bad, nature good.  “People are anathema to nature”.

        That being said, I support measure O funding, IF effectively used (and not for the largess shown to the former “Open Space Coordinator” position, and all of the indirect support costs from CM’s office, Finance, IT, etc.), and IF it protects sensitive areas from improper development.  Note the word “improper”.  Some peripheral growth IS proper, and if not done “willy-nilly”, can be a strong benefit (and not just revenue) to the community, and appropriate.

        The issue is “nuanced”.  Anyone who thinks peripheral growth is a “black/white” issue (as opposed to time, place, nature, method), IMO, is ill-informed or a fool.


    3. Don Shor

      I very much like the quality and tone of this article. I’ll reply to the particular points separately. Just one more correction on the same sentence:

      Unfortunately none of the land acquired by our Measure O dollars is accessible. And none of it is on the periphery of Davis.

      Mace 391 is on the periphery of Davis. It was acquired in part with Measure O funds. Part of it is to be set aside for an urban farm, though I don’t know how publicly accessible any of that will be.

  2. Jim Gray

    Jeff:  Thank you for a thoughtful analysis and presentation.  I think that you have pointed out some of the “unintended consequences” of the public policies of “no annexations” “no updates to our land use polices” and to “open space protection measures” that are not “particularly strategic”.

    I agree that we need to ask a series of questions — that you have helped to identify– about what policies do we want to encourage for the Community that we live in and love?  Do we really want to just be a commuter community?  Do we want to make it impossible for companies to grow here?  Do we want to become a community of increasingly older residents with few job opportunities for our children, for our grandchildren and for those who are attracted by UCD? Do we want to see the University move larger and larger parts of their programs out of our City? And do we want the companies that are spawned by our world class research and workforce to have to leave towN?

    We can and should be expanding the conversation — like you have done in your Guest Commentary — to raise the issues related to opportunity, public access, modern infrastructure, and a realistic assessment and discussion of what is working and what is not?

    1. Jeff Boone

      Thank you Jim and Anon.

      I have often made decision in passionate reaction to events that later, after calm reflection and analysis, I have determined to be sub-optimized and even problematic.

      We obviously were not happy seeing an explosion in housing after committing to a slow growth model.  And we reacted with these two land use measures that put a lot of decision power back in the hands of the voters and the people we elect.

      I am just suggesting that it is time for calm reflection and analysis.

      Personally, I think we are missing some tremendous once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to take Davis progressively forward into a much better world-class community because of these land-use policies and the politics surrounding them.   We seem a bit stuck in a myopic and stasis view instead of being able to embrace dynamism and leverage the possibilities almost being handed to us.

  3. Alan Pryor

    Palo Alto actually only has 160 acres of parks in the City. About 2,000 acres of open space was acquired many decades ago in the foothills outside of town (and surrounded by other foothills communities). It is actually very nice open space with diverse ecosystems  of the type generally unavailable to us flatlanders here in the Valley. About 1,900 acres is marshland which has trails around it but the vast majority is unuseable for hiking or everyday use…but it is great for birders much like the Yolo Bypass.

    1. Jeff Boone

      Alan, I do understand that most of this Palo Alto accessible open space land is outside of city limits.  This compares to the land outside of Davis city limits being acquired with Measure O funds.  However, I absolutely do not agree with you that the vast majority is unusable for hiking and recreational use.

      Bounded by Portola Valley, Los Altos Hills, Pearson-Arastradero Preserve and Los Trancos Open Space Preserve, the 1,400-acre Foothills Park is a nature lover’s paradise. Miles of trails provide access through rugged chaparral, woodlands, fields, streams, and a lake, and provide spectacular views of the Bay Area. Wildlife abounds, and it is common to see deer and coyotes; if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a bobcat.

      Now granted, there is less topology in the valley, and maybe there are more attractive natural features that Davis lacks.  That being the case then why would we be interested in preserving habitat and retaining our peripheral “viewscapes”.

      I have the fortune to be given access to some of the surrounding farm land and my wife and I head there to take the dog for a flat-lander-hike.   Yes it is flat, but it is still nature and has its own beauty.

      We should looking land to connect Davis to the causeway and also the Putah Creek corridor and make it useable and accessible.  Some of it already is accessible, but in a very limited way.  And not because of anything Davis has done with Measure O funds.

  4. Michelle Millet

    Thanks you for taking the time to write this article and sharing your perspective in a reasoned and rational manner. (Frankly, I think one particular blogger on the Vanguard could benefit from taking this approach when commenting ;-).

  5. skeptical

    This piece is so misleading it is difficult to know where to start.  Measures J, R and O have absolutely nothing to do with the issues identified by Mr. Boone:  City financial problems, inadequate local economy, growing bedroom community, planning incompatibility with UCD, inadequate rental housing supply, traffic congestion, and millennial problem.  It should be self-evident in reading the list. 
    Measure J and R merely require voter approval for conversion of the City’s surrounding open space and agricultural land to an urban use.  Measure O merely collects $24 per parcel per year for open space and habitat protection.  The City has failed miserably in implementing both of these measures, but that is no fault of the community in approving them.
    Measure J/R changed the rules for the development game, but the City has yet to change its approval process to conform to the new set of rules.  Measure O was submitted to the City by a citizen’s group, including a plan, a land prioritization model, and a complete set of tools for maximizing the use of Measure O funds, with management and mapping tools to facilitate public scrutiny and accountability.  The City stripped all but the funding mechanism and put it before the voters.
    City financial problems stem from the persistent approval of projects that generate more cost than revenue.  The city has approved additional public facilities and infrastructure without securing the funds for maintenance, repair, or replacement.  This is a terrible business model that must be replaced.  Expanding this model will only make things worse.  Rebranding this model “innovative” or “sustainable” is unacceptable.
    Inadequate local economy is a statement of personal preference.  It is not the task for the City to tell the community the type of economy it desires.  The task for the City is to adapt to the economy that the community desires.  The city has long been a bedroom community and there is nothing wrong with that choice.  What is wrong is the pursuit of “Big City Dreams” particularly, when such dreams are contrary to the desires of the community.
    Planning incompatibility with UCD is a good point, though completely unrelated to Measures J, R and O.  How about annexing the core campus into the City?  That would yield considerably more leverage in providing additional rental housing on campus, freeing up a lot of rental units in the City, and filling the City coffers with funds that currently flow to the County.
    This so called “millennial problem” is a most peculiar argument.  The people of Davis make choices about the type of community we desire. If millennials (or any other demographic) want to live in this community they may, and are free to do so.  It makes no sense to think that we w/c/should assemble jobs/housing/civic components that appeal to various demographic groups and hope that somehow these pieces will all magically fit together in the type of community that we want.
    To those who grumble that Davis should be more like Chico, Palo Alto, Santa Barbara, or wherever… move or visit there. Those places already exist for you, and please, let the rest of us enjoy Davis for what it is and for what we collectively want it to be.

    1. Anon

      Inadequate local economy is a statement of personal preference.  It is not the task for the City to tell the community the type of economy it desires.  The task for the City is to adapt to the economy that the community desires.  The city has long been a bedroom community and there is nothing wrong with that choice.  What is wrong is the pursuit of “Big City Dreams” particularly, when such dreams are contrary to the desires of the community.

      And exactly what economy does the community desire, and how does the city determine what type of economy is wanted by the community?  Secondly, how is the city to pay for this “bedroom community” you envision as a “choice” (I would argue a bedroom community has evolved over time as an unintentional result of a refusal to grow either in residential/rental housing or economic development)?  And who says a bedroom community is what the majority of Davis citizens want?  It seems you are making a lot of assumptions that I am not certain you can back up with any evidence that is what is wanted by the majority of Davis citizens.

  6. Jeff Boone

    City financial problems stem from the persistent approval of projects that generate more cost than revenue.  The city has approved additional public facilities and infrastructure without securing the funds for maintenance, repair, or replacement.

    Frankly, I don’t know what you are talking about here.  And since it is key to your entire post, it would be helpful if you would explain what you are talking about.

    This is a terrible business model that must be replaced.  Expanding this model will only make things worse.  Rebranding this model “innovative” or “sustainable” is unacceptable

    And you also should explain what is “terrible” and “worse” to explain why you think it is unacceptable.

    It is clear that you are against growth.  It would be good to understand why.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for