Commentary: UCD Materials Growth Lab Does Not Benefit the Community

When the UCD Materials Growth Lab, proposed for 2900 Spafford Street, comes before the Davis Planning Commission on Wednesday, they will be asked to vote on a Conditional Use Permit.

The findings of that CUP are as follows:

  1. Conformance. That the use conforms to the City of Davis General Plan and Zoning, in that the use is conditionally permitted, is consistent with zoning and general plan, and appropriate conditions to address concerns identified have been made part of the approval.
  2. Public Welfare. That the proposed use will not constitute a nuisance or be detrimental to the public welfare of the community, in that the use would be consistent with existing and permitted uses; all conditions and requirements deemed necessary and in the public interest have been or will be met as they have been imposed on the application approval to address potential safety concerns raised by the use.
  3. Compatibility. That the nature, intensity and condition of the proposed use is compatible with existing and adjacent uses and structures and appropriate for the site, in that the project will comply with all necessary safety requirements and regulatory measures, it meets all applicable development standards, and appropriate conditions have been made part of the approval.
  4. CEQA. That the proposed project is categorically exempt from further environmental review pursuant to Section 15301 which exempts the operation and leasing of existing structures and facilities. There are no new or unusual circumstances related to the project or project site that would require further environmental review.

From the standpoint of the Planning Commission, parts two and three seem particularly problematic.  You have very real safety issues that have been raised by the public, and you have the issue of compatibility of such a lab with several low income housing complexes and a Montessori school – all in close proximity.

I don’t want to downplay those, but for me the biggest issue is frankly not in the purview of the Planning Commission, and it has to do with a very basic but fundamental question: what is the benefit to the community for placing such a facility in the city?

Not only does there seem to be no benefit – there is a fundamental harm.  The harm is that every time UC Davis becomes the tenant in a commercial building in Davis, the city loses both in terms of property taxes and also in terms of opportunity costs – that is a space where a private company could occupy and therefore generate tax revenue for the city.

There may be ways around this issue, through agreements with the university to make the city whole when they occupy commercial space – but make no mistake, this is a huge issue, it transcends the land use issues of this particular topic, and it is not within the purview of the Planning Commission.

Matt Williams in a comment notes that “until the last 24 months no one gave any consideration to asking UCD to voluntarily forgo the benefits they realize from the provisions of the State laws regarding Property Taxes for non-profit and government entities.”

But, as we move forward, this ends up being a huge issue as the city is looking to take university research projects and utilize tech transfer and become the home to start ups from the university.  It would be in the best interest of both the city and the university to address this issue sooner rather than later.

Until it is addressed, there is zero benefit to the city to approve this request.

While I think there are legitimate issues that are raised on the health and safety side, I would not necessarily oppose the project solely on their basis.  The problem is that there is no upside to balance against the risks.

The city gets no benefit from doing this.  I disagree with those who argue that this type of facility belongs on campus – I think that’s incredibly short-sighted.  But, without benefit to the city, why should we allow for a conditional use permit, given the risk to the nearby residences including Montessori kids?

For the Planning Commission, they should focus in particular on the issues of public welfare and compatibility – I think those are close calls.  However, this issue really needs to get to the city council and it really needs the council to take leadership on the issue of tax-share when the university occupies commercial space in town.

I think we want to be good partners with the university – but good partnership is a two-way street, and if UC Davis is getting all of the benefits and none of the risk, that’s not being a good partner.

—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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  1. John D


    The need for this chronic and constant meddling in discussions surrounding potential new development is just so exhausting and counterproductive to the best interests of both the community and potential, would-be investors and employers.

    If I read you correctly, your main issue here seems to be with dual issues of taxpayer equity (for lack of a better term) and financial benefits to the community.   It should not be the responsibility of the Planning Commission to be concerned with these aspects of the project.

    What is evident, however, based on your observations and the comments from Matt Williams, who is a member of the Finance & Budget Commission, is that Planning and Finance Departments of the City do need to spend focused time addressing this pressing issue.

    At the moment, and despite all the hand wringing about the state of the city’s finances, there is no objective, published data which details how much in property tax is currently being lost to these types of tax-exempt occupancies – and it is not just confined to university-related uses.

    Cities like Berkeley, regularly include a summary report in the appendix to their Annual Report, which includes a detailed breakdown of the various categories of property tax revenues as differentiated between residential and commercial uses and between exempt and non-exempt assignments.   It would also be useful to have this report include the associated square-footages for each of these categories.

    This information would establish a valuable profile by giving all of our Commissions and the City Council, and the community for that matter, some common baseline and reference point to better understand the magnitude and impact of various property classifications and sector uses which presently comprise our local economy and its role in local property tax generation.

    1. David Greenwald


      I think your point is valid, however, I specifically stated in my piece that the issue of tax share is not an issue for the Planning Commission.  “this is a huge issue, it transcends the land use issues of this particular topic, and it is not within the purview of the Planning Commission.”

      I think if your development requires a conditional use permit, the city must get some benefit from that and in this case, if anything it is a net negative for the city all the way around.

      1. John D

        My harping wasn’t specifically directed at your commentary, rather it was a broad-based indictment of the increasingly complex, unreliable, gauntlet-like challenges faced by new developments seeking to find a home in Davis.

        It seems the process has become unnecessarily daunting, intimidating, expensive (for applicant, staff and commissions), and time consuming – not a good combination if you are seeing to attract more enterprise applicants and technology employers to the community.

        As for the benefit, in this particular instance, it seems that a more comprehensive, better equipped FAB can be of benefit not only to university and its partners, but also as a demonstration of this community’s commitment to advanced technology manufacturing and fabrication.  This is an important signal to private sector companies looking to support the university’s research mission and a tangible manifestation of our support for such technologies and research.

        That seems like a worthy message to share with those who may be considering Davis for their future expansion, professional and career development.









  2. Roberta Millstein

    In a comment yesterday, Eileen Samitz indicated that the Hazardous Materials subcommittee of the The Natural Resources Commission met with UCD last Tuesday and gave them a list of questions to answer, but that UCD has not yet responded to these questions.  I don’t think that the Planning Commission should come to its decision without having answers to those questions and a recommendation from the Natural Resources Commission, since, as David notes in this piece, the Planning Commission is supposed to determine that the project is neither detrimental to the public welfare of the community nor incompatible with existing and adjacent uses and structures.  I don’t see how it can do that properly without having heard from the NRC.

  3. Eileen Samitz


    I agree with your analysis although I still would say that this semi-conductor growth lab belongs on the campus for many reasons including the health, welfare  and safety concerns for our community primarily. UCD has over 5,300 acres and they have vacated and are re-purposing and renovating Haring Hall. This semiconductor growth lab which may have as many of 12 of these semi-conductor systems, could go there. If not there, UCD needs to look into other options including building something on campus, rather then UCD continuing to rent or purchase our City commercial building which then denies the City of needed property tax due to the universities tax exemption status. If there were an explosion or fire, the City would not even get any compensation towards the City services used to respond to it.

    I agree with Roberta’s comment that the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) toxic’s sub-committee questions given to UCD a week ago should have been answered by now. That input appears to be  downplayed, even though the NRC voted unanimously that they wanted to have this issue come to them by some of the Planning Commissioners. Instead there seems to be a “fast-tracking” of this CUP application for UCD.

    Finally, it is the large size anticipated of this semi-conductor growth lab which is a big part of the issue. That means much larger volumes of the combustible gasses like hydrogen and oxygen needed and toxic chemicals like hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and phosphoric acid. These chemicals if volatilized are poisonous.

    Here is a section from the Staff report from the applicants letter regarding design issues:

    “The initial plans which were reviewed by AGI, show flammable and pyrophoric gases being dispensed from an outdoor location on the east side of the building. Due to the location of overhead powerlines and required setbacks required by code, it will be extremely difficult to dispense these types of gasses from and outdoor location. Moving the flammable and pyrophoric gas dispensing locations to the parking lot will be evaluated during the development of construction drawings.”

    Now knowing that cars leak flammable materials like gasoline, oil, etc., does a parking lot sound like a good place to vent flammable and pyrophoric gases?

    This building is a metal building, not constructed like the steel and cement buildings on the UCD  campus like the Chemistry building which fortunately was able to endure a large explosion and fire blowing off doors some years ago.

    I agree that there is far to risk and no benefit that comes with this UCD  semi-conductor growth lab and it does not belong this mixed-use neighborhood, particularly with the nearby Montessori daycare and so much residential housing, including high-density affordable housing which is likely to house quite a few families with young children, and also concerns about the surrounding businesses. This UCD semi-conductor growth lab simply belongs on campus.



  4. Greg Rowe

    This is coming late because the Planning Commission met last night, but below is the letter I sent to the commission on this issue. Having worked with CEQA for 25 years and worked on literally dozens of Categorical Exclusions for 13 years in my last job before retiring, I felt the City’s Cat Ex determination was arguable, as stated in my letter.  Apparently the commission concurred.

    This letter reiterates the concerns I voiced at the March 22, 2017 Planning Commission meeting regarding UCD’s request to establish a semiconductor materials growth lab in a building currently occupied by the UCD College of Engineering. As I stated then, during my career I spent six years (1996-2002) working in urban redevelopment. From this experience I learned that one of the biggest challenges in making productive reuse of properties was the cost and time required to remediate soil and groundwater contamination resulting from improper use and disposal of hazardous materials. This experience convinced me that seemingly innocuous use of industrial chemicals in densely developed urban settings should be approached with great caution.

    I also devoted 13 years (2002–2015) in managing environmental regulatory compliance at the four airports operated by the County of Sacramento. During that time I oversaw at least ten costly and lengthy hazardous material remediation projects involving significant soil and groundwater contamination. Most of these incidents were caused by improper practices carried out by well-meaning airport tenants who often failed to follow simple precautionary procedures and regulatory requirements. 

    Based on this experience, I believe the materials proposed for use and storage at the Spafford Street site pose an unreasonable risk to the occupants of nearby current and future commercial and residential properties. The Semiconductor Materials Growth Lab should be located on the UCD campus in a facility specifically designed, constructed and managed for that purpose.  It simply does not belong in the city.   

    I also question the validity of staff’s determination that the proposed project is categorically exempt from further environmental review pursuant to the Guidelines for Implementation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), Article 19, Section 15301 – Existing Facilities (Categorical Exemption Class 1). The March 22, 2017 staff report reached this determination on the basis that “There are no new or unusual circumstances related to the project or project site that would require further environmental review.”  Let’s start by reviewing the text of this exemption:

    Class 1 consists of the operation, repair, maintenance, permitting, leasing, licensing, or minor alteration of existing public or private structures, facilities, mechanical equipment, or topographical features, involving negligible or no expansion of use beyond that existing at the time of the lead agency’s determination. The types of “existing facilities” itemized below are not intended to be all-inclusive of the types of projects which might fall within Class 1. The key consideration is whether the project involves negligible or no expansion of existing uses.   

    Nthe text of 15301 are Itemized a through p.) 

    According to the report prepared by Abbie Gregg, Inc. (AGI), the proposed project would install three Seki SDS5205S Diamond CVD tools. Used in conjunction with the Thomas Swan custom configured MOCVD system and an acid processing bench for cleaning MOCVD parts, the proposed project would appear to be a significant departure from the existing uses of UCD’s leasehold.  Of further concern, the AGI report notes (page 3) that six Diamond CVD systems and six MOCVD systems could fit into the space designated for the proposed project.  Given the possibility that the use and storage of hazardous materials could correspondingly increase if the machinery doubled in number, I suggest it would be prudent for the City to evaluate the full range of potential environmental and human health impacts associated with the project.

    On the basis that no statutory or categorical exemptions may apply to the project, I suggest that at this point it may be it may be appropriate for the City to defer action on the proposed Conditional Use Permit and to prepare a CEQA Initial Study before the proposed project is further advanced.  

    It is also my understanding that UCD has thus far not responded to a list of questions developed by the City’s Natural Resources Committee (NRC). Given that the Planning Commission specifically requested NRC input on the CUP application, it would appear appropriate for UCD’s responses to be included in the staff report for the April 12 Planning Commission meeting. Why has this not occurred?

    Finally, although not directly related to the CUP application, it should nonetheless be noted that UCD’s occupation of the 2900 Spafford Street facility would result in the elimination of property tax revenue to the City of Davis.  This would occur because the owners of properties leased by UCD typically apply for property tax exemptions on the basis that the University of California is a tax-exempt organization. If UCD were to vacate the building and locate the College of Engineering’s activities in appropriate facilities on campus, 2900 Spafford Street would be available for occupancy by a tenant or tenants that would not trigger the loss of property tax revenue.

    1. Roberta Millstein

      Thanks for this.  It provides some needed perspective and relevant experience.  Yes, the Planning Commission ultimately decided that stated reasons for granting an exemption were questionable and that a full CEQA analysis needed to be done.  The vote was unanimous and seemed to include those who might otherwise be inclined to favor the project, with some voicing the thought that the information they would need to provide an exemption could only be obtained with an EIR.

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