In what turned out to be a fairly simple and straightforward vote, the Davis Planning Commission unanimously voted to recommend the Davis City Council certify the Mace Ranch Innovation Center (MRIC) Environmental Impact Report.
Staff clearly laid out what certification in this case means, that the EIR document, adequately analyzes “the potential environmental impacts of the project for the purposes of CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act], with the project description as set forth in the EIR.”
Staff was also clear that this action “is limited to certification of the FEIR and is not an action on or approval of the project.”
The staff report explains that the question before the commission “is whether or not the EIR document, as prepared by the City, provides adequate analysis to certify under CEQA based on the project description contained in the EIR document. A Planning Commission recommendation focused on the adequacy of the EIR document has been requested by the City Council.”
Staff believes that, while the approach here is “unusual,” it is permissible under CEQA. They write, “The requested certification of the EIR will require the City Council to make the findings and determinations required under CEQA Guidelines Sections 15090 (Certification of the EIR), but the findings and determinations under CEQA Guidelines Sections 15091 (Findings for Significant Effects), 15092 (Project Approval), and 15093 (Statement of Overriding Considerations) will not be made until an action on the project is before the Council.”
Dan Ramos, on behalf of the applicant, who requested certification in a letter dated October 5, told the Planning Commission on Wednesday that, in the fall of 2014, the developers engaged in an environmental review process pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for MRIC. Over the next year and a half they, along with the city and others, “spent considerable time and effort which has resulted in a very thorough environmental impact report.
“We now respectfully request that the council take action to certify that EIR so it can formally bring that environmental review process to a close,” he said. “We recognize that the certification of the EIR does not approve Mace Ranch Innovation Center nor commit the city to any future course of action with respect to the project. To be clear, we’re not requesting that any project be approved at this time.”
He added, “We also recognize that any future approval action may require further environmental analysis.” However, he believes certification would acknowledge that the environmental review process is “adequate and complete.”
The certification of the process is not without its critics. David Robertson said, as a land use attorney, he knows this is legal, but has not seen it happen before.
During public comment, Eileen Samitz again argued against certification of the MRIC project. She once again argued, “There is no project defined so far from the project developers. There is an application on hold with a number of alternative projects and two equal weights.”
She also called “serious flaws in the EIR, particularly the false assumptions that you have to have 60 percent of the units – 850 units – would have to be occupied by at least one employee. It’s ridiculous to assume that that [can] happen when it can’t be reinforced legally.”
Ms. Samitz is referring to the equal weight alternative, that the staff concluded is the environmentally superior alternative, “assuming the addition of a legally enforceable mechanism to ensure that at least 60 percent of the on-site units would be occupied by at least one MRIC employee can be provided.”
Commissioner Cheryl Essex said “the challenge for the future of the Mace Ranch Innovation Center is with this list of significant unavoidable impacts, is it possible to get a Measure R positive vote on a project with the level of concern from folks about environmental impacts. Can a feasible project be proposed to reduce these significant unavoidable impacts to make it more likely that we can have an innovation center that we really need?”
She noted the tension between densifying and building more in the community and sprawling out to build beyond our borders – “these significant unavoidable impacts really point that out.”
Nevertheless, she was supportive of certifying the EIR given the limited findings. “I believe that this EIR does adequately disclose the potential environmental impacts of this project, and I’m certainly willing to make a motion to that effect,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine that we would actually finally approve a project with this number of significant unavoidable impacts.”
Dan Ramos told the Vanguard, “In a big project like this, you expect those (significant unavoidable impacts), it gives everybody the opportunity to look at how you handle those.”
Commissioner Darryl Rutherford noted that he understood and appreciated the risk that the developers are taking on proposing this sort of project. He believed that the amount of money that has been spent “is pretty astronomical and outside of the realm of what most of us would comprehend.”
Dan Ramos told reporters following the meeting that they have already spent $3 million on this project.
Mr. Rutherford stated, “We’re not talking about philanthropists here, we’re talking about people who are essentially looking to make profit.
“That’s not bad,” he said. “Where it does become bad is when it’s not a huge benefit back to the community.
“In order to move these things forward and to pass a Measure R vote I would strongly recommend that the city council figure out some way that this becomes a true community benefits agreement for all parties at stake here,” he said. “The environmentalists are going to play a huge role in these discussions.”
He said a lot of good-faith negotiations need to occur and “this is a good time for these negotiations to start prior to a project being proposed.” He said, “If they can do this for the Hyatt House, they can definitely do it for something like this.”
One of the commissioners cited a letter that questioned the need for the business park which said, “If there is truly a need for a business park space, we already have land in the city that can accommodate those uses. There’s already abundant commercial industrial space in Mace Ranch and South Davis, that’s available, properly zoned, and sitting idle.”
Mike Webb, in response, diplomatically stated, “I would consider that a statement of opinion.”
He noted that the single largest available site within the city is 14 acres, with the PGE site at 25 acres, which would require redevelopment of the existing use, not to mention a current user vacating.
The commission, on a motion by Stephen Mikesell and second by Cheryl Essex, passed the motion 6-0 to recommend certification of the EIR.
Dan Ramos told the Vanguard following the meeting it is their intention to bring forward a project. “We’re very much interested.” He said, “We wanted to see if we can at least get to this milestone and then sit down with the council and see what’s going to be on the horizon in 2018, what kind of project they would like, and keep working on it.”
When asked if he anticipated significant enough changes to warrant a new EIR, he responded, “Who knows.” He added, “Obviously there will be something that we have to go study.”
He stated, “We are going to take significant efforts once this gets to market to find an anchor tenant.” Finding an anchor tenant now is crucial to allow the project to move forward, he said.
Mr. Ramos said he is looking to get in touch with the university and talk to the new chancellor about his plans and how they might be able to work together.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Mr. Ramos is unsure when this would come back to the council for final certification of the EIR, but he saw this as a huge step, which he believes will allow them to move forward.
In an email this morning, Mike Webb told the Vanguard there was no specific date set at this time.
—David M. Greenwald reporting