In the spring of 2016, following a rejection of a mixed-use proposal by the city council, the developers of the Mace Ranch Innovation Center paused their project. Briefly after the election they attempted a comeback, only to pause it again. But they have already gone through the EIR process and have requested that the council certify their EIR, even though there is no project right now.
MRIC had proposed a mix of industrial, commercial and retail uses totaling 2.7 million square feet on the 218-acre site located on the east side of Mace Boulevard near the Second Street intersection. The EIR prepared included “an equal weight analysis of the project as proposed and an alternative that included housing.”
The draft EIR was released in August 2015, with the final EIR and response to comments back in January 2016.
On February 23, the applicant requested the process focus on the housing alternative. The council, at that time, unanimously directed staff to continue to process the original application. The applicant, on April 13, 2016, notified the city that the project would be placed on hold to reevaluate its feasibility.
In a letter dated October 5, Dan Ramos based his request on the notion that “[o]ver the course of the next year and one-half, City staff, technical consultants, City commissions, the applicant team, your Council and the Davis community spent considerable time and energy participating in that effort which resulted in a very thorough environmental impact report (EIR).”
The move has triggered questions and criticism from some in the community, who see the certification of the EIR without a current project as inappropriate and potentially short-circuiting the EIR process.
For his part, Dan Ramos told the city, “We recognize that certification of the EIR does not approve MRIC nor commit the City to any future course of action with respect to the project.”
“To be clear, we are not requesting that any project be approved at this time,” he informed the city.
He also told the city, “We also recognize that any future approval action may require further environmental analysis. Nonetheless, your certification of the EIR would officially acknowledge that the voluminous environmental document prepared for MRIC is adequate and complete.”
Mr. Ramos continued, “It would also provide us with an environmental document which we will be able to use to help attract potential tenants and investors, all of whom are likely to look more favorably on our project if we can show them a certified EIR.”
“A certified EIR should accordingly serve as a tool for economic development as certification signals to potential users that this site, though not approved for any development, has undergone the most substantial part of the entitlement process and that the City of Davis is serious about keeping and attracting innovation employers,” he stated.
Finally, Mr. Ramos added, “We believe that the certification process should provide the City an additional opportunity to discuss how our project might move forward in the future.”
In July, the Davis Chamber Board of Directors submitted a statement to the city in support of the request.
Their statement read in part that “approving certification indicates your faith in the integrity of the report and will avoid unnecessary costs and staff time to repeat and or create a new report for projects submitted in relation to this site.”
The Chamber placed the cost of the investment “by the project proponent… upwards of $1.6 million.”
The Chamber statement also noted that the EIR included the city’s 25-acre site.
According to the city’s analysis, “Certification of an EIR is required prior to approving a project, but approval of a project is not required following certification.”
Certification means that the EIR has been completed in compliance with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), it was “presented to the decision making body and that body reviewed and considered the information in the EIR prior to approval of the project,” and it reflects “the lead agency’s independent analysis and judgment.”
Staff writes, “Certification requires no other findings, and can be divorced entirely from consideration of the merits of the project. Essentially, certification signals confidence in the analysis and provides some finality to an expensive and lengthy analytical process.”
They continue: “While typically combined as one concurrent set of actions when approving a project, CEQA does allow for certification apart from project action. It is not uncommon in other jurisdictions for the City to certify an EIR well in advance of any action on a project. While this is not typical in Davis, staff believes this request has merit given the scale and unique nature of this type of undertaking.”
Staff again clarifies that the certification “has no implications for any subsequent action on the project.” Following certification, “the Council is free to approve, deny, or take no action on a project proposal.”
With regards to mitigation measures: “Certification confirms the mitigation requirements for a project based on the regulatory and environmental setting described in the document and based on the project and alternatives as defined in the document. This makes clear the mitigation requirements of the project.”
However, “If significant new information relevant to a project emerges prior to certification of an EIR, recirculation may be required.”
Staff adds, “If directed to move forward, staff is mindful of the importance of clearly communicating to the community throughout the process that certification is not a project action. Direction to proceed with processing this request does not obligate the City Council to certify the EIR. Ultimately that decision would be made if and when a project proposal comes before the City Council.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting