On Wednesday the issue of EIR Certification of MRIC has come before the Planning Commission. Many slow growth advocates and opponents of the project have questioned the wisdom of certifying an EIR without a current project. While they have put forward a compelling argument, the city has maintained the view that EIR Certification is ultimately an interim step that will not preclude further environmental study should a new project come forward.
However, a new argument has emerged and it has to do with the 25 acre parcel that is owned by the city but included in the footprint that would be studied in the EIR.
The argument is that that land was purchased with Measure O funds and therefore should be held in perpetuity as open space for the citizens of Davis.
Again there is merit to this argument – the same argument that came up with the original 391 acre Leland Ranch that was ultimately put into a conservation easement after the city considered a request to turn it into an Innovation Park.
In 2011, the city purchased the 391 acre property as part of an ongoing effort to conserve open space. However at the time, developers and others in 2013 pushed for the city to repurpose the land as an innovation center – it took two narrow votes to keep the land moving forward into a conservation easement and the city eventually resold approximately 365 acres of the Leland Ranch to a farming interest while retaining a permanent agricultural conservation easement on this property.
The city retained ownership of 25 acres of the Leland Ranch and have been contemplating what to do with that land. The land was purchased for roughly $242,975 in 2011 ($9,719/ac). The 2013 appraised value of the property was $12,000/ac or an equivalent of $300,000 for 25 acres. The original purchase price was funded by Measure O Open Space funds.
If the city enters into an agreement with the Mace Ranch Innovation Center applicant, and the land is utilized for anything other than open space purposes, the Measure O funds would need to be reimbursed to the Open Space Acquisition account.
What to do with this land is the subject to a lot of discussion and uncertainty. One idea has been to use the land for a Community Farm – although some have argued its location is less than ideal as it is not immediately on the current urban edge and would require access for the public to have access to it.
The other potential use is for it to be sold to the developer to become part of the Innovation Center and the city could use the funding to purchase other land potentially right on the Mace Curve for an urban farm.
Again, I think there are legitimate issues being raised here about the best use of land and it is clear from previous discussions that council is divided as to what to do.
From my perspective if the city is inclined to go forward with the EIR (at cost to the applicant), they might as well study the environmental impact of the entire site. There truly is no downside to a complete environmental study.
Some of the opposition argued that the city is moving this forward in drips and drabs. If this were not a Measure R project, I might be compelled to agree with them. But the reality is there is no such thing as drips and drabs in a Measure R project. There is a bright line that gets drawn at the point where the project has to come forward to the voters.
From our view, there may never be a project at this site. The applicant has basically paused their process and given the costs of going forward and the barrier of a Measure R vote, the EIR may well be certified and there would be no project.
Second, the city has not decided what to do with the 25 acres. Remember there was considerable pressure to change the trajectory of Mace 391 and the city council voted no. The city may or may not be more inclined to change their thinking on 25 acres, but that discussion has not occurred yet.
Third, even if the city council agrees to sell the property, unless the voters agree, there is no project there.
We have seen three times in the last 12 years where city councils were willing to support projects whether it was on 3-2, 4-1 or 5-0 votes and each time they were stopped cold by the voters.
Last year, the council voted 5-0 to support Nishi, only to have the opposition campaign raise a host of issues from Affordable Housing, to traffic impacts to air quality concerns and the voters said no.
Simply put, I think the opponents would have a much stronger position on the 25 acres if this were not a Measure R project. Since it is a Measure R project, I do not see the harm in studying it as one project for the purposes of a CEQA Disclosure process.
Personally, while I support the notion of an Innovation Park in principle, I would want to see the specifics. I remain very supportive of using the 25 acre site as a potential urban farm and would go as far as to argue that the 25 acres might prove helpful if MRIC goes forward and contains a World Food Center and the need for experimental agricultural fields.
In short, depending on the specifics of the innovation park, there may be nothing incompatible between the originally foreseen uses as open space easement and its inclusion in the Innovation Park EIR.
We will have to see the details later and the citizens will have the opportunity to act accordingly.
Given the dire need that the city has for new revenue, we should not be foreclosing on possible using, but rather attempting to creatively incorporate open space needs with potential revenue generating uses on the main portion of MRIC.
—David M. Greenwald reporting