Commentary: Too Much Made on Both Sides of the MRIC Certification Issue

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Developer Dan Ramos discusses the previous project during January 2016 Vanguard Event

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

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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.

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24 thoughts on “Commentary: Too Much Made on Both Sides of the MRIC Certification Issue”

  1. Tia Will

    “I disagree about it being precedent setting.  This is unusual.

    I do not believe that the decision here will have any bearing on other projects.”

    I am not so sure that this is true. It was not so many years ago that I seem to have heard in person from a former mayor that planning by exception of a downtown project allowed to build outside the zoning and design guidelines was a one off and would not affect future projects. We can all see how that turned out.

     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.”

    While I personally happen to agree with this statement as written, I think that it may miss a larger point. While it is certainly the case that the majority of the city council ( some more passionately than others) believe that more large scale commercial/industrial space is the best way to go, this does not seem to be the opinion of the majority of the community as reflected in the recent rejection of Nishi, a considerably smaller project. While I see a lot of drive from developers, some business people and Ms. Swanson, I do not see the same zeal for larger scale development on the part of the voting citizenry. While David has opined on a number of occasions that this is due to a lack of understanding of our financial situation, I would like to propose that it is at least in part, because this is not how the majority of voters want our community to develop.

  2. Roberta Millstein

    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.

    That is what Mike W said and that is what some councilmembers chose to hear, but that is not what Harriet said.  She said whether or not you’d need a supplemental EIR or a new EIR would depend on the changes, even for a smaller project.  Smaller doesn’t necessarily mean less impact.  If you think about it from an open space perspective this is clearer – perhaps from other perspectives as well, but I am not versed in them.

    I agree, though, that some members of Council and the developer were making a bigger deal of this than it was, and it was in anticipation of that that some of us were raising concerns.  I’ll paste in a portion of my comments that I made in Council Chambers here:

    If the City really isn’t committing to a project at Mace Ranch by proceeding with certification, then I would like the following assurances from each of you.  I’d like to hear that you won’t say things like, “we’ve been working with the developer for so long on this, we certified the EIR, we can’t reject them now” or similar remarks.  That is, I would hope that each of you would not use the mere fact of a certified EIR as reason to be in favor of any project at Mace Ranch, given that there is no project on the table.

    I would also hope that if you heard developers or others trying to use the certified EIR as evidence that the City is in favor of a project at Mace Ranch, that you would strongly and publicly disavow any such remarks.

    And if you are not willing to make these assurances, then I have to ask, what is really going on here?  Is this really just a legal dotting of the i and crossing of the t?  Or is it something more – a nod in favor of the project?  Because we really should not be nodding in favor of a project that is missing all of the relevant details.

    1. David Greenwald

      Roberta:

      But here’s the bottom line – the assurance is that you can’t get a project approved without a vote of the people and that has never successfully happened in the Measure J era.  That’s not a small hurdle.  So the council may have made it easier to get to that hurdle, but the challenge is jumping over that hurdle and the height of that hurdle has not changed and will not change.

      1. Roberta Millstein

        David,

        My point is that some people (citizens, possibly council members) will argue for approving on the basis of the fact that we have been working with the developers so long, we approved the EIR, and so how can we deny them now?  You might think of it as the “dance with the one who brought you” argument.  Of course, not everyone will be persuaded by that, but some will.  And yet, mere certification of an EIR should not be an indicator of a good and desirable project, especially if it deviates from the actual project.

        Which brings me to the point I made above about whether a smaller project would need a supplemental or new EIR, which you didn’t comment on.  (Perhaps you didn’t see it).

        1. Howard P

          So many points, but you addressed it to David, so won’t “go there”… no point, as you have made it clear that you give ~ 0% credibility to those who don’t use full names…

          So, there has been a missing piece in this… LAFCO and the County (just occurred to me today)…

          The City cannot annex/provide services for a property outside its boundaries, absent LAFCO approval/concurrence.  Maybe that approval exists, but have seen no evidence of that, to date.  It might well be OK’d by LAFCO, at least in concept…  yet annexation is not a ‘done deal’ as far as I can discern.

          By the same token, Yolo County could approve any damn project it pleases (subject to LAFCO review, CEQA, etc.), consistent with the YC General Plan, and no Measure R/J vote.

          But I recognize, Roberta, that you will need “proof”, as I am a semi-anonymous poster.  Feel free to ignore me and/or this post.

           

           

          1. Don Shor

            Realistically, how likely do you think it is that the Yolo County board of supervisors would approve a project on the city limits of Davis? Mace Ranch itself was the last time that was threatened. I don’t see Rexroad, Chamberlain, and Villegas voting to do that, and it would really surprise me if either of the Davis supes would support it. So while it is theoretically possible, it would lead to the complete unraveling of the pass-through, serious dissension on the board, and a major insurrection of Davis residents against the county.
            So, yes, “Yolo County could approve any damn project it pleases” but I consider that pretty far out of the realm of likelihood.

        2. Roberta Millstein

          So, there has been a missing piece in this… LAFCO and the County (just occurred to me today)…

          Yes, that has been a known and potential threat for some time.  How much of a threat, I don’t know, and opinions seem to vary widely.

          But I recognize, Roberta, that you will need “proof”, as I am a semi-anonymous poster.  Feel free to ignore me and/or this post.

          If you provide reasons for what you say, then I will always listen.  But if you appeal to your unknowable experience (unknowable to me and most others here because you are anonymous) then you might as well be whispering in the wind.  That’s a sacrifice you make when you decide to be anonymous.  Your comments can’t rely on your reputation outside of the blog; people can judge you only on what you say here.  My observation is that sometimes you make productive comments (that I either agree with or disagree with) and that sometimes you descend into pointless personal attacks or jibes (like you’ve done here).  I vastly prefer it when you stick to the issues.

  3. Ron

    Tia:  “While I see a lot of drive from developers, some business people and Ms. Swanson, I do not see the same zeal for larger scale development on the part of the voting citizenry. While David has opined on a number of occasions that this is due to a lack of understanding of our financial situation, I would like to propose that it is at least in part, because this is not how the majority of voters want our community to develop.”

    Well-stated.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      Maybe, but do we really know that? Is it a majority or is it a vocal segment of the community? The people I saw speak on Tuesday were all “usual” suspects on both sides of the issue.

      1. Ron

        David:

        Good question.  But, based on past results (and the sheer size and outlying location of the proposed development), I would guess that the answer at this point is probably yes.

        As one of the “vocal segments” – aka “usual suspects” you referred to, I hope to “do my part”, if/when it ultimately proceeds. (Although I wasn’t at the meeting.)

        1. Ron

          Regarding significance, I don’t know.  Some on the Vanguard stated that a new EIR would almost certainly be required, which gives credence to your statement.  Others noted that a new EIR may not be required, and/or might only require a modification. (Most seemed to hold the latter view – that a new EIR may not be required.)

          The importance of legal (and other) challenges to the EIR may be somewhat dependent upon the validity and usefulness of the existing EIR.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            My point is actually even more basic than that, a determination has not been made on the EIR, all they decided to do was consider whether or not to certify it and even if they certify it, they might need another EIR and only then will we to a point where the project consideration begins.

        2. Howard P

          Ron you need some perspective… when you say,

          Good question.  But, based on past results (and the sheer size and outlying location of the proposed development), I would guess that the answer at this point is probably yes.

          Although not subject to Measure J/R, per se, both Wildhorse and Mace Ranch were more than ‘significantly’ bigger.  Both had referendums to overturn the CC approvals… neither came even close to succeeding.

          Your guess is your guess… cannot dispute your guess.

          The fact is, that most voters will vote “no”, if they don’t understand, or are unsure… measure J/R relies on that… that was the intent of those who drafted it.  Makes an apparent simple majority vote into more like a ‘super majority’ (60-67%) in order to approve.

      2. Keith O

        David:

        Maybe, but do we really know that? Is it a majority or is it a vocal segment of the community? The people I saw speak on Tuesday were all “usual” suspects on both sides of the issue.

        LOL, how many times have I said just that and been rebuffed by you and other commenters?

        My hat’s off to Swanson for recognizing that it’s the same old bunch that show up everytime this and other issues come up.  I feel our council is sometimes intimidated by the loud outspoken few but the vociferous by no means represent the community as a whole.

        1. Ron

          Keith:

          Not sure how you feel about the latest proposal at MRIC (before it was withdrawn), but the community (as a whole) has “spoken” several times now regarding developments outside of the city, via Measure J/R. (Actually, many have expressed concerns about various development proposals inside the city, as well.)

          Regarding Measure J/R, Nishi came the closest, perhaps because of its location near downtown and the university.  (Of course, access concerns are likely what killed it.)

        1. Ron

          Regarding the “usual suspects”, David might be considered one as well, regarding the issues he focuses on.  (Nothing wrong with that per se, but we’re all ultimately “suspects”, in some manner.)

        2. Ron

          David:

          Some of those “usual suspects” might essentially speak for others, as well.

          By the way, I’m apparently the “worst kind” of suspect, on the Vanguard.  “Anonymous”, or – as one commenter apparently referred to me the other day – “Imaginary”.  Not sure that even the police can track me down. 🙂

        3. Howard P

          Tia… do you honestly believe that if the Nishi property measure had been worded as, “Shall the City deny the development of the Nishi property?” , that the outcome would have been the same?   With a majority of voters voting affirmatively to deny the project?

          Both times a referendum has been posed to reverse a CC approval (Wildhorse and Mace Ranch) they failed… significantly.

        4. Matt Williams

          Howard, what I hear you saying is that “no” is the “default vote” for voters who walk into the voting booth with a less than robust knowledge about a land use ballot measure.  Is that what you are trying to say?

          “No” is almost always the “default vote” for voters who walk into the voting booth with a less than robust knowledge about a tax measure.

    2. Howard P

      The vast majority of Davis citizens have no “zeal” for anything other than family, friends, making a living, etc., in my experience.  If you asked 100 people how closely they even read the paper focused on development trends, etc., strongly suspect you’d get 3 ‘very’, 5 ‘sometimes’, and 92 pairs of glazed eyes (or ‘huh?’ and/or ‘never’).

      In our family (five adults aged 30’s – 60’s) you’d get one “very”, one “sometimes”, and three ‘huh’ or “never”.  But that is skewed towards the very and sometimes, because of how I’ve spent my career…

      Oh, it is a household that has a 95% voting record… engaged, but not specifically on Davis issues, particularly development.

      1. Howard P

        Timed out… by ‘read the paper’, am talking about ALL media…

        Suspect that the %-age of folk that those who read the Bee or the Emptyprize (together) is ~ 40%… those who read the VG regularly ~ 2% (max), except for those monitoring it for ‘trends’ rather than for info.  So, add another 2%, maybe…

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