Commentary: The Council as Decision-Maker on Project Proposals and Design-Guidelines

New Trackside schematic

Last week the Planning Commission approved the application for Trackside but rejected the Initial Study and Design Review.  The city just announced this week that the council will now take up the proposal on October 3.

One of the key points that has been made in the Trackside discussion has been the extent to which the city needs to adhere to its design guidelines – a point that I think it is quite valid, and I have suggested that the city ought to consider updating the Core Area Specific Plan (CASP) first before consideration of Trackside.  That is probably not going to happen at this point.

There is a letter this week in the Enterprise from Jim Leonard who argues the following: “The neighbors of the project oppose the current design. While the planning guidelines give discretion to the city for the final decision, the implicit obligation is for the city to side with the residents first; that is implied by the process being democratic. Common decency demands that the city put the neighbors first.”

He goes on to say, “If the developer achieves agreement with the neighbors and that agreement is outside the guidelines, only then should they be waived. Otherwise, the city and the developer would be railroading the neighbors and Davis citizens in general.”

He continues: “If the city wants to change the guidelines, I welcome that through a general and public process. Trackside needs to be considered within the current set of rules, however, and the bias should go to the neighbors, not the developer.”

He concludes: “If the city accepts the developers’ plan over the neighbors’ complaint, that will not only be bad for the neighbors but bad for all Davis citizens since it opens the door for any development to run roughshod over neighborhood interest.”

Mr. Leonard brings up several important points here.

First of all, I do not agree with the notion that the neighbors should have effective veto over a project.  In fact, I have some concern about the amount of voting power the council gave to the neighborhood associations with respect to the Core Area Specific Plan Advisory Committee, because I believe the entire community has a stake in the policies and process in the CASP, not just the adjacent neighbors.

That said, as I have stated previously, the city probably is better off figuring out what the new guidelines are going to be for the Core Area in terms of heights before they set the height guidelines for the Trackside project.

The problem that we have, as Brett Lee pointed out in his comments at Wednesday’s Vanguard Conclave, is that three councilmembers have the ability to change zoning and change any of the design guidelines.

I do think that Rich Rifkin in his comment makes an interesting point: “If a proposal, like Trackside, requires Zoning amendments in order to be approved, the Planning Commission ought to vote it down.”

Clearly, the council has the discretion to approve zoning changes and General Plan Amendments, as does the Planning Commission, but it might be better if the Planning Commission leave such discretion to the policymaking body, the city council, rather than attempting to rewrite policy on its own.

Bottom line: While I agree there are some problems here with overlapping guidelines and policy documents, I’m not comfortable with the argument that the neighbors are the final arbiter in this.

A poster on the Vanguard noted the following points.  First, “I’m failing to understand the reason that a proposal cannot adhere to neighborhood guidelines (which actually allow for a 3-story building).”  Second, he argued, “It’s not up to the neighbors to ‘prove’ that a taller, denser proposal (than what is already allowed) has significant impacts.”  Third, “As usual, the conversation seems to start by putting the neighbors on ‘defense,’ regarding a proposal that exceeds existing guidelines.”

As I stated in response to that comments, I think this raises several points worthy of discussion and I reprint them here in an effort to broaden that discussion.

First I would say, it is not that the proposal “cannot” adhere to neighborhood guidelines, it is simply that it does not.  Part of the problem here – again – is that I think those guidelines are somewhat out of date.  But that reverts back to my initial point that that I think the discussion should focus on the CASP update first rather than the project.

On the second point, the problem here is that the developer is making the proposal, so any time the developer gets to make the proposal (and we can’t stop them from doing so), that means if the neighbors want to stop or modify that proposal, they have come up with reasons for the policymaking bodies to oppose it.  That is the way that the process works, though I suspect that most developers do not view themselves as being in the driver’s seat during this process.

This process does put the neighbors and potential opponents of the project on the defense.

But I think the comment ignores the inherent advantages that opponents of growth have in Davis.  The de facto answer is a usual no in Davis and most proposals end up being reduced in size and scope as the process goes along.

So the original Trackside proposal was at six stories – that was largely a non-starter.  The revised version is four stories.  My guess is that when all is said and done, the council will end up further reducing the size of the project and the neighbors may well get a three-story building there.

The poster writes, “Honestly, I can’t believe that this proposal is even being entertained.  3-stories isn’t ‘sufficient,’ next to existing/small 1-story homes?”

The comment seems to ignore how the process works.  The project proposal “has to be entertained.”  There is no way that the city can legally prevent it from being entertained.  The council has not even received the project to weigh in on it yet.

The other problem you end up with in this case is the lack of general agreement over what is reasonable and what is excessive.  Ultimately the city council is the decider here – they will determine whether they are willing to modify existing rules to accommodate this proposal, or whether to send it back for more revisions.

—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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19 Comments

  1. Tia Will

    as Brett Lee pointed out in his comments at Wednesday’s Vanguard Conclave, is that three councilmembers have the ability to change zoning and change any of the design guidelines.”

    Brett Lee went further and in response to a question raised said that he did not see any way around this. While this is true as stated, I believe there is action that the City Council could take to provide a more collaborative approach rather than a series of developer proposals followed by community opposition. One such alternative which would create more equal treatment of various interests would be for the City Council to make clear that proposals would only be accepted for consideration if and when the developer came forth with a proposal that was either entirely within zoning and guidelines and/or had been thoroughly vetted with the most impacted communities as well as with opportunity from commentary from all within the city prior to finalization of design.

    I feel that for California cities at the present time, growth is one very important issue. However an issue of at least equal importance is trust of the citizens that the governmental processes are fair and equally applied. When developers have the idea that the accepted process is for them to ask for as much as possible with the knowledge that all they need is majority support, we have created a system which favors those who are economically, socially, politically or otherwise well positioned at the cost of those not so advantaged. In my mind, this is a clear breach of trust not only with adjacent neighbors, but with the community as a whole and is such is a very destructive process.

     

    1. David Greenwald

      Part of it Tia is having updates planning documents.  That won’t preclude the three votes factor, but if you think about it, it will ensure that council has a vested interest in stating, we just went through the process and decided blah blah, rather than falling back on the idea that the documents are out of date.

  2. Ron

    From article:  “The comment seems to ignore how the process works.  The project proposal “has to be entertained.”  There is no way that the city can legally prevent it from being entertained.  The council has not even received the project to weigh in on it yet.”

    Not “ignoring” the way the process works.  However, if the council made it clear that they weren’t interested in considering proposals which exceed guidelines/existing zoning, it’s not likely that developers would subject themselves to the time, money, and effort required to submit such proposals.  (Lately, those efforts have “paid off”, in the form of Sterling, Hyatt . . .)

    From article:  “Part of the problem here – again – is that I think those guidelines are somewhat out of date.”

    This seems to almost be a “code phrase”, for those who keep pushing for more density than existing guidelines/zoning call for.  (Apparently, “out of date” = too restrictive, for some.)

     

    1. David Greenwald

      Ron: That would be a Brown Act violation.  The council can’t weigh in on a project collectively until it comes before them.  It only comes before them when it reaches that point in the process.  So again, there is no mechanism by which that can occur.

      1. Ron

        David:  You’re taking my comments a step further, than what I wrote.

        In general, this council has demonstrated a willingness (and frankly, a goal at times) of bypassing existing zoning/guidelines to accommodate more density, megadorms, hotels . . .  (Hell, I think some are still hoping to encourage a re-emergence of Nishi.)

        Seems to me that the owners/developers of Trackside see the same type of possibility/opportunity, for their proposal. Why not “go for it”, from their point of view? (At worst, they’d still be able to submit a subsequent proposal for a development which meets current guidelines/zoning.)

        (This is not intended as a comment regarding the desirability of each proposal.)

        1. David Greenwald

          Ron:

          You wrote: “However, if the council made it clear that they weren’t interested in considering proposals which exceed guidelines/existing zoning, it’s not likely that developers would subject themselves to the time, money, and effort required to submit such proposals. ”

          The council can only make that clear at a public meeting and it can only have a public meeting late in the process.

        2. Ron

          Howard:  My last sentence above did not adequately convey my thoughts.  (For example, I was thinking of the Hyatt proposal, which seemed to work out reasonably well, in the end.)

          I also do not necessarily oppose redevelopment in the downtown area. (However, I view the Trackside site as a transition zone.)

          (Looks like Howard might have removed his comment, as I was writing this response. But, I’ll leave my response, regardless.)

        3. Howard P

          Ron… the reality is that the applicant has to ‘put money on the table’ for each and every “roll of the dice”… the croupier always ‘wins’/gets paid…

      2. Howard P

        Be assured… the applicant (and/or cynical citizens) can feel out [and even ‘politic’] individual CC members at any time… the CC just can’t ‘compare notes’, nor have private deliberations.  They have to understand the magic number is 2… 3 is a problem, big time.

        The Brown Act doesn’t restrict communication, except among themselves… and still allows a bit of that… if for no other reason, to see if another member will second a motion they are inclined to make, even if only ‘for the purpose of discussion’…

        1. David Greenwald

          All that is true, but how does the “council” make something clear absent a public meeting.

          The clearest cut case where the proposal was not acceptable to council was Paso Fino and you still have a situation where the process played out and the council ultimately got the project down to six units from 16 (IIRC).

        2. Howard P

          Think about it… if an applicant talks to three-four CC members, they have a lot of info (“tells” if you will), which changes the game from gambling to poker… no guarantees, but information is powerful… I know of a number of applicants who realized they couldn’t count to three, and either revised their application (for instance, going from a 6 story project to four) or withdrew their application.

          Applicants are not idiots… they do ‘due diligence’ on many levels… they will seek ‘opinions’/’thoughts’ without looking for a commitment for a particular vote…

          If you don’t believe that… well, what can I say? I may be completely wrong… want to bet on it?

        3. David Greenwald

          I believe that, but my experience is that councilmembers don’t say “no” they may suggest problems that they have with the project and even in the case of Paso Fino, whatever they said did not kill the project.

        4. Howard P

          That post (12:02) is reality… CC members make it “clear enough”… applicant can read the ‘tells’ and can react…

          Rest assured if the Paso Fino folk didn’t think they could count to at least three, there would have been other modifications before the votes…

        5. Howard P

          Staging, and measuring public comment… in the context of previous discussions…

          Rest assured the parties (applicant and PC/CC) all had the caveat of ‘it depends on the nature/volume of public comment’…

  3. Tia Will

    David

    The council can only make that clear at a public meeting and it can only have a public meeting late in the process.”

    This is true with regard to a particular project. It would not be true with regard to their philosophy over all. There would be nothing to stop each member from agreeing to a preferred process in which each project was vetted in a particular way prior to consideration, and making that well known ( say at the time of their candidacy) that this was their preference. I will give an example from a different controversial issue.

    It had at one point been common practice to accept bundled contributions from certain well known constituencies in town. Then two candidates, Joe Krovoza and Rochelle Swanson effectively changed this practice by saying that they would not accept such contributions. It was not a Brown Act violation for them to do so, and would not have been even if a third or fourth candidate would have done the same.

    There would be nothing stopping a council member saying, “I do not like the way that proposals are being brought to us prior to being vetted by the community and will most likely not look favorably on projects put forth in this way. If enough council members and/or candidates took this stance, I am willing to bet that the developers/investors would choose a more collaborative approach.

    Having said that, I agree with you that the Planning documents should be updated. This however is a separate issue from the “count to three” ability to walk around even the best planning documents. I had limited my question and concern to the latter for purposes of this thread.

    1. David Greenwald

      “This is true with regard to a particular project. It would not be true with regard to their philosophy over all. ”

      But I think the Planning Documents are the expression of philosophy.

  4. Howard P

    Slightly different concept…

    I really don’t get the PC action of rejecting the environmental docs (which are technically necessary to render any conclusion) then voting a recommendation (two, actually) for CC action… that is both bass-ackwards and weird… whatever… it is what it is…

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