I went back and forth in my mind over whether certifying the EIR for Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC), absent a project, was the best course of action. I came to the conclusion that both sides here are guilty of making way too much of the action, which in fact only brings forward the project to consider certification.
That is part of what has been lost in the discussion – the council did not vote to certify this project on Tuesday night. So half of what was argued by the opposition was completely irrelevant when they argued that the Final EIR was flawed for a variety of reasons.
As Robb Davis wrote yesterday, “The Final EIR may be flawed but we cannot formally declare it as so without a certification process.” So the cart was ahead of the horse.
On the other hand, while I tend to agree with a lot of what Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said on Tuesday, the fact of the matter is that she was guilty herself of hyperbole.
“Are we open for business?” she asked. “I don’t think so. That breaks my heart because I’ve invested seven years in this.” She added, “This is an inflection point to decide whether or not we’re really moving forward.”
Ms. Swanson was not alone. Councilmember Lucas Frerichs added, “I can’t say with a straight face that I’m supportive of economic development in Davis if we’re going to continue to not be supportive of economic development in Davis.”
The problem is that the action taken on Tuesday doesn’t mean we are any more open for business than we were on Monday. We still don’t have a project and we still lack major commercial space to expand our economic development. That’s what we need, and nothing we did on Tuesday moved us forward.
As Councilmember Will Arnold put it, “This commits us to nothing and this costs us nothing.”
And, as it turns out, it probably does nothing.
Many of our posters noted the disconnect between the comments that this doesn’t mean approval of the project, and the colorful comments about being open for business.
As Tia Will pointed out, “I do think that these comments by the council members in voting to move forward are instructive. Although posters said repeatedly that certification without a project was a completely neutral action, each of the council members voting affirmatively made it clear that they do not see it as neutral, but rather as a means to expedite a project they favor.”
But that doesn’t mean they are correct.
Robb Davis stated, “An EIR might enable us to move more quickly.” All Mike Webb would acknowledge is that it wouldn’t hurt to have a document and the analysis that one can go to.
The other argument is that this is somehow precedent-setting, in a bad way.
City staff has pointed out that just because Davis usually certifies the EIR at the time of project approval, there is no requirement to do it that way.
Councilmember Rochelle Swanson said, “I disagree about it being precedent setting. This is unusual. This is an investment in our community that I am confident beyond confident that no one else would have stuck it out as long as this.”
And she has a point here – who is going to go all the way to a Final EIR, pause their project, and then ask for certification? The set of circumstances is quite unusual.
Some have suggested that another project will roll forward without a defined project and be able to request an EIR. If they do and do so successfully, I suspect it would require another full discussion and a unique set of considerations. I do not believe that the decision here will have any bearing on other projects.
Staff also clarified under what conditions a new EIR or a supplemental EIR would be required. The answer is not only changed circumstances, but more impactful changes. In other words, you can think of the current EIR as a ceiling – so if a new project comes in with a smaller footprint or fewer housing units, in the case of a mixed-use project (that the council still lacks support for), then it would not trigger another EIR.
However, expanding the footprint, the square footage, the impact, could trigger a supplemental.
A member of the public suggested this would trigger a future fight – it seems here that it would not and that the need for a new EIR would be fairly easy to determine.
Councilmember Swanson responded though, “I don’t believe there will be future fighting if we don’t move forward. Because there won’t be anything to fight about anymore.”
I think again that that’s hyperbole, but I do understand that there is mounting frustration by many about the difficulty of getting anything done in Davis – and the cost associated with that.
Even the advantage to the applicant isn’t quite as clear as it was. On the one hand, you have the comment from Mike Webb that having a certified EIR might speed up the process, but, on the other hand, he also made it clear that there was no expiration date for the work done to date.
That means, in point of fact, there is no ticking clock for certification. They could simply sit on what they have and add to it in the future for a new project. Again, I don’t blame them for wanting to formalize and preserve their work that was achieved at great cost, but it might not be a catastrophe if this doesn’t get certified.
Bottom line for me is there might be some cost-saving and future time savings, but ultimately I don’t see this as a big deal.
This isn’t greatly opening the door to a new project.
First, council has not made a determination to certify the project. They have only decided to review the Final EIR and then will decide whether it is sufficient. That is a big point the opposition missed in their pushback.
Second, if they do certify it, that really doesn’t open the doors. A new application would trigger some sort of review and determination. It would go back through the commissions and there would be a process.
The project still needs to go to a vote of the council and then to the public to be approved.
No project has won a Measure R vote. Some have argued that this makes it less likely that it would be approved. I don’t agree. I think by the time a project comes forward, whether or not they have to do an additional EIR, the public can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the project based on the merit of the project before them, rather than about a small decision that was made a few years early at best.
Bottom line, I get the council’s anxiety to send a signal that we are open for business, but until we approve a project and develop ample commercial space, we simply are not.
This is a procedural vote that does little to nothing in changing that bottom line.
—David M. Greenwald reporting