Commentary: Responding to Letter Writer’s Concerns about Commission Process and Nishi

Roberta Millstein wrote a letter to the local paper complaining that the “commission process favors developers.”

She writes: “Our commission process is broken, as was very evident at the Davis Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 24.

“One of the topics of discussion was Nishi 2.0, the new proposal for student-oriented housing on the triangle of land sandwiched between the freeway and the train tracks. The developers were allowed to speak for well over an hour — to basically take as much time as they liked. They even brought in citizens who also were allowed to talk as long as they liked on the developers’ behalf.”

She notes: “Other citizens, however, were given only two minutes each to reply. Then the commissioners gave a very brief discussion — with some commissioners giving no comments at all — before their unanimous vote in favor of the project at about 11:30 p.m. Many citizen concerns brought up during the comment period were not even mentioned.

“This is not a democratic process. This is a process that heavily favors developers,” she argues.  “There needs to be a limit on the amount of time developers are allowed to present,
just as there is for other citizens.

While I think she has a point about some things here, I disagree with her bottom line and I’ll explain why shortly.

First of all, I was thinking a similar thing as the night grew late last week.  The schedule for hearing the Nishi matter was cut very tight, where it literally went to the Planning Commission last week and was going to be heard by the council in two weeks – there was no margin for error, no time for a second reading.

In 2016, the Planning Commission spent three meetings on the Hyatt House project – but now they spend just a few hours on a much larger project in Nishi?  That did seem rushed.  And, given that the project wasn’t even finalized, it seems they could have met earlier and come back with a second hearing.

With that said, I disagree with Ms. Millstein on the thrust of her points.

First of all, the Planning Commission is really not the decision-making body here.  The first motion was to “recommend that the City Council determine that the Addendum to the previously-certified EIR adequately assesses the impacts of the revised projects and there are no changed circumstances or new information requiring recirculation.”

They then recommended that the council approve the General Plan Amendment and Development Agreement.

These are narrow considerations, especially since city staff determined that the impact of air quality was outside the purview of CEQA.  If that is the case then the fight at this point is really over whether there should be a project and that is the job of the council, not the Planning Commission.

Second, Ms. Millstein argues that this is a process that heavily favors developers.  That’s not really true.  It is true that the Planning Commission approved both Nishi and Lincoln40, but the Planning Commission has also either rejected projects previously (Hyatt House) or punted them to council (Hyatt House, B Street Residence).

What has made the process developer friendly is that the council, the actual decision-making body, has approved each of these projects by either 5-0 or 4-1 votes over the last few years.

Third, Davis is actually one of the most democratic communities around.  For all of the complaining about the process being not democratic, here we had the commission meeting going until 11:30 pm, whereas in neighboring communities that would never happen.  In Woodland they typically finish their council meetings before 9 pm.

What was pointed out to me is that the city bends over backwards in order to give the community space for deliberation in commission meetings, even as the comments extend well beyond the scope of the commission’s purview.

Finally, it is worth noting that while I agree Nishi was “rushed” through the Planning Commission process, it is also not a completely new project.  Yes, the specifics of this project have changed from the one that the voters rejected in 2016, but the issues are largely similar.

We are already very familiar with a lot of the issues, including the most contentious one at this time, air quality.  The project has addressed concerns about traffic impact and has mitigated concerns about affordable housing options.

As such, the questions before the Planning Commission were quite limited and even if the Planning Commission ended up rejecting the recommendation based on the EIR or Development Agreement, the council is the ultimate decision-making body.

The issues brought up last week will come back next week before the elected city council and they will make the decision as to whether to put the project on the ballot.  And, even if the council votes to do so, the voters get the final say.

—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. Alan Pryor

    What was pointed out to me is that the city bends over backwards in order to give the community space for deliberation in commission meetings

    Who pointed this out to you? Were they from a parallel universe?

    I’ll bet 5:1 that I attend far more Commission meetings than you (not necessarily including Council and Planning Commission). While it is true that citizens often get 3 min vs 2 minutes  in some Commission meetings, developers are often given unlimited time to present their projects and no time limits on their responses to questions.

    Plus many of the objections raised by citizens or even the Commissions themselves in these proceedings never see the light of day when the projects are later presented to other Commissions or Council.

    C’mon, David, open your eyes and ears! You cannot possibly really believe the process is not stacked in favor of developers. And if you do otherwise believe that the process is completely fair and open, I can suggest a good local optician and audiologist for you.

    1. David Greenwald

      My view is again that if the process is stacked in favor of developer it is because there is a city council that has approved all of the recent projects. Bot the Planning Commission and Social Services commission have ruled against their aspects of projects only to get reversed by the Council. And the Council is the decider.

    2. Ken A

      Most developers I know would not even bother trying to develop in Davis (or SF) since it is so hard to get anything built.

      I’m wondering if Alan thinks a resident of West Davis who is worried that her cat might be bothered by trucks on 113 taking building material to Nishi should be given as much time to talk in a Planning Commission meeting as the developer?

      I’m also wondering if Alan thinks developers should be given time limits when answering questions (and have the planning commission tell the resident “sorry you came to the meeting but we are out of time to answer both your questions”)?

    3. Aaron Latta

      Alan: This argument would make sense if the entirety of public comment was dominated by opposition to the development. For the last two planning commission meetings this has not been true. From my vantage point it was even support and opposition for the project. In order to claim a corrupted planning process one would need to see massive opposition coming to these meetings. An opposition that simply hasn’t existed at the planning commission meetings this month.

      This complaint seems more like individuals who are used to their opinion being the only ones in the room no longer having a monopoly on public comment. If you don’t show up, don’t expect to be considered.

  2. David Greenwald

    As a practical matter, public have opinions on matters and they have numbers to stretch out the length of their comments.

    The developers have a more direct role to play in addressing questions and concerns of the public/ commission which necessitates additional time.

    In the end, I suspect that at times public sentiment matters in determining whether or not a commission or council takes a given action, but often it does not.

  3. David Greenwald

    Reached out to Tim Ruff, this is what he said:

    This will be the most publicly vetted development project in the history of Davis. It will be subject to 2 votes where it needs 12,000 votes to succeed. Not 3 out of 5 votes on the CC as other development projects. Matt Williams and Roberta Millstein were ABSENT from the commission when Nishi 2.0 was before their commission – is that our fault? Look at the planning credentials of the PC- impeccable. I have it if you want it. This site was given a “green light” in 2008 by 2-year extensive citizen based process. Nishi 1.0 was a City- Land owner partnership begun in 2012 , requested by the City for innovation center, 100% community driven process, informed by a grant from Strategic Growth Council, UCD involvement, extensive public outreach, EIR, and vote of the electorate in 2016. The sustainability plan prepared by the grant is still applicable for this project.

    Nishi 2.0 is the manifestation of the 10-year public process, listening to the voters, listening to the commissions, and will again be voted on by the citizens of the City if the CC considers it worthy. the Baseline Project Features reflect much of what the commissions discussed in their deliberations on the project. The PC is filled with citizens with knowledge on land use, landscape, EIRs, environment, and health risk. Is it possible that, after all the evidence, they felt is was a proper plan? Proper planning is their task. Do not sell-short your fellow commissioners or elected officials. But in the end, everyone still gets 1 vote, including the developer. How can a process be more informed or public? We are criticized for taking to much time to describe our project to the public, to inform the voter, and then told we are rushing.

  4. Eric Gelber

    To say that the commission process is not democratic is to ignore the fact that the establishment and existence of the commissions, themselves, is a democratic process. These are citizen advisory bodies, consisting of informed volunteer members of the community who represent varying interests and perspectives, to give the Council input and advice.

    Based on my experience, public comment at a commission meeting or public hearing is not the most effective means of presenting opposing views. Showing up in large numbers can be effective for showing the extent and breadth of opposition (or support); however, effective advocacy for a position, particularly on complex issues, is best accomplished, whenever possible, by providing written input in advance of the meeting, and then using the public comment period to highlight or supplement the main points.

  5. Tia Will

    I’m wondering if Alan thinks a resident of West Davis who is worried that her cat might be bothered by trucks on 113 taking building material to Nishi…”

    I largely agree with Eric Gelber’s post, I think that Ken’s post is an example of the frustrations encountered by those who have project concerns. Although I do not agree with Dr.Cahill’s “even one death is too many” approach to otherwise scientific data collection and analysis, I think it is disrespectful, flip and dismissive to liken the concerns he & others raise legitimately to worries about one’s cat. I have found this to be a common and frankly disgusting approach by those in favor of development towards the very real concerns of those who oppose a given project. Kudos to Tim Ruff for not following this path and for addressing objections and concerns as they have arisen.

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