Commentary: Will District Elections Enhance NIMBYism?

The Sacramento Bee ran an article this week on Roseville, Citrus Heights and Davis switching to district elections.  In it they have a discussion of Davis’ recent vote and the fact that some believe “their town does not have the same degree of racial and economic segregation as other cities hit with voting rights lawsuits.”

While I do not necessarily agree with that view, here I focus on an important point that Mayor Brett Lee makes, stating that he “is concerned that moving to district-based elections may exacerbate existing NIMBY, or ‘not in my backyard,’” tendencies in the city.

“If I’m focused on my little segment of an already small town … I will feel pressure from my constituents to not accept a homeless services office or housing,” Mayor Lee said.

We see a little of that with the pushback against Pacifico.  But like much of this stuff, the relationship here figures to be complex.  On the one hand, contested projects will have a councilmember there to represent the views of the constituents living in that area.  On the other, there will be four other councilmembers to weigh the pros and cons more objectively.

A key point here is that many of these projects have been passed on 5-0 or 4-1 votes.  Having a councilmember there advocating for the neighbors might not be the worst thing, as it will raise critical issues that the neighbors have early in the process, it will compel more compromise – and having a single councilmember is not going to be sufficient to kill a project.

I have pulled out for consideration five of the more contentious projects in the last decade – each with serious near-neighbor complaints.

Wildhorse Ranch was a problem from the start, as the developer originally put forward a project that the neighbors vehemently rejected.  They eventually came to council with a re-worked project, but the neighbors still objected.

It managed to get through the council on 3-2 vote but the voters, in the middle of the Great Recession, were not interested in a housing project and rejected it by a 3 to 1 margin.

In a way, the council acted as though there were district elections because Stephen Souza, himself a resident of Wildhorse, joined with the strongest opponent of growth, Sue Greenwald, to oppose the project.

The Paso Fino project nestled near a greenbelt and along Covell Blvd. also drew near-neighbor concerns.  There were objections to density, but also to an idea of swapping a portion of a greenbelt for another portion.  After several iterations, the project was approved in a scaled down version that avoided greenbelt entanglements.

More recently we have seen local opposition to Hyatt House, Trackside and Sterling.

Hyatt House in a way is a model for how contentious proposals could be resolved.  But there is another dynamic at work here.  The councilmember who lived in the neighborhood – Rochelle Swanson – was actually within the 500 foot radius and thus recused from voting.

It was then Will Arnold who insisted on one more effort at conflict resolution that brought the neighbors and developers into a compromise.

This experience raises two important points.  One is that in a small town like Davis, it will often be that a district representative will be conflicted off discussion for a given project.  That may not be a problem right now with four other at-large councilmembers, but could pose a huge problem in a district alignment.

The second point is that looking at ways to bridge the gap between the neighbors and developers could be the function of the district representative, especially if the rest of the council is supportive of the project.

Often there are two levels to these discussions – one is support-opposition but the other is, given that the project will be approved, how do you mitigate near-neighbor concerns?

The Sterling case illustrates how having a district representative might be advantageous to the process.  Ultimately in Sterling there was conflict resolution, with some of the folks from Rancho Yolo meeting to find compromises.  This again is a role that could be facilitated by the district rep, assuming they are not conflicted out.

Finally, the biggest case that might scream for the benefit of having district representation might have been Trackside.  The neighbors were bitterly opposed to the project, the process was bad, and the council ended up supporting it anyway.

Would having someone who was elected to represent folks in the core have been an advantage?  Maybe.  It would not have been enough to block it, but perhaps it could have gotten one more round of compromise before going forward.  Hard to know.

The dynamics of these projects might have been different had there been one councilmember who was an advocate for a given neighborhood.

The impact, though, is really going to depend on how that councilmember operates.  If they are someone looking to obstruct, first of all, in most cases they would be outnumbered – but second, they would produce a more hostile atmosphere.

On the other hand, a collaborator who represented the interests of the neighbors and the district might have taken a different approach.  Instead of looking to “kill” the project, they might have looked at impact mitigation and conflict resolution, in which case a district representative could actually be a benefit to both the neighborhood and the city.

One issue that the city needs to resolve now is how to handle conflicts.  As pointed out, under at-large systems, it doesn’t really matter that much if one councilmember is conflicted out.

But with district representation, if the councilmember representing the neighborhood is conflicted out, that’s a problem and one that the city needs to figure out before it becomes a problem from a legal and political standpoint.

—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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28 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    I can envision situations in which district-elected council members are reluctant to approve a development in someone else’s backyard, that they wouldn’t approve for their own.  (Or, at least being accused of that.)  In fact, they might be afraid that doing so would come back to bite them, when the next development is proposed in their own neighborhood – especially if they’ve already screwed-over one (or more) of their colleagues’ neighborhoods.

    Perhaps no neighborhood should be thrown under the bus.

  2. Alan Miller

    While I do not necessarily agree with that view

    Necessarily?

    We see a little of that with the pushback against Pacifico.

    A little of that?

    On the other, there will be four other councilmembers to weigh the pros and cons more objectively.

    You mean four other councilmembers who won’t give a flying f**k.

    On the one hand, contested projects will have a councilmember there to represent the views of the constituents living in that area.

    IF that ONE councilmember gives a da*n.

    – and having a single councilmember is not going to be sufficient to kill a project.

    Oh, and thank G*d for that, eh?

    I have pulled out for consideration . . .

    Pulled out of . . . ?

    The councilmember who lived in the neighborhood – Rochelle Swanson – was actually within the 500 foot radius and thus recused from voting.

    So by going to district elections where the councilmember lives in the district, they might not even be able to vote on a project the district neighbors are concerned about.  Oh, f*cking great.

    looking at ways to bridge the gap between the neighbors and developers could be the function of the district representative, especially if the rest of the council is supportive of the project.

    And what if the district rep themselves is supportive of the project?

    Often there are two levels to these discussions – one is support-opposition but the other is, given that the project will be approved, how do you mitigate near-neighbor concerns?

    Not do it and say you did?

    Finally, the biggest case that might scream for the benefit of having district representation might have been Trackside.

    How so?

    The neighbors were bitterly opposed to the project,

    True dat.

    the process was bad,

    True dat.

    and the council ended up supporting it anyway.

    True dat.

    Would having someone who was elected to represent folks in the core have been an advantage?

    Considering Old East Davis and Old North Davis will probably end up together in a Central Davis district, and and certain councilmember who lives just outside Old North voted for – no INVESTED IN the project – and then de-vested, and then didn’t recuse themselves despite the intimate financial contact, and then voted for it — I would say F*CK NO.  As due to the strong tendency of voters to vote for incumbents unless they stab a baby to death in Central Park, OED and OND have a strong possibility of being represented by this same councilmember – as our ONLY representative.  Oh, F*-ing great.

    But with district representation, if the councilmember representing the neighborhood is conflicted out,

    . . . or doesn’t represent the views of the neighborhood, much more likely . . .

    that’s a problem and one that the city needs to figure out before it becomes a problem from a legal and political standpoint.

    Or, more likely, we’re just f*cked.

  3. Eric Gelber

    The plus side of district elections is that it will give local residents a more impactful voice with their local representative. The downside to district elections is that it will give local residents a more impactful voice with their local representative.

    As a mitigating factor, I would note that, even with Trackside, NIMBYism is typically limited to a relatively small but vocal contingent of nearby residents, so it’s not necessarily going to have a significant impact even on the local Council member. (As an aside, this should be a consideration in deciding whether to increase the size of the Council. More districts, covering more compact areas, increases the relative influence of smaller numbers of residents and the likelihood of a Council member having to conflict out.)

  4. Ron Oertel

    There’s an interesting comment (from a very different Greenwald – on another blog) regarding the potential for district elections to hurt downtown.

    1. Craig Ross

      Or help downtown.  There an assumption that district elections will lead to parochialism which will push commercial interest to the neighborhoods and periphery.  The problem with that view is Davis is too small for such impacts.  It’s not like a project in downtown helps only people living downtown.  This isn’t a congressional district where you bring jobs into the district and it impacts only a single district.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Since it’s not allowed, I won’t directly quote or provide a link to the comment from the other blog on here.  Pretty sure that most readers know where to find it.

        Actually, there’s an entire article regarding the broader subject on there, as well. With comments from several readers.

        1. Craig Ross

          You could certainly summarize the argument, but I don’t think I agree with that assessment.  The impact on the downtown is not limited to a particular district, that’s the key problem with the argument.

        2. Ron Oertel

          A summary may not do it justice, but the jist of it is that it could lead to a “traditional” suburban/core divide, where all of the rentals, homeless services, etc., will be downtown, and those who can afford it will move to the “suburbs”.  (I’m not sure if the reference to suburbs means the farther reaches of town, or out-of-town entirely.) And, that there are negative consequences when all of the “regular” homeowners move out of a particular area.

          The only thing I know for sure is that I’d like to hear a lot more from that particular “Greenwald”.

        3. Ron Oertel

          It’s unfortunate that the other Greenwald isn’t available to comment further.

          I wonder if she means that representatives from the surrounding neighborhoods (aka, “the suburbs”) will ensure that rentals and homeless services are concentrated downtown.

        4. Ron Oertel

          The phrase “final nail in the coffin” was used.

          Reminds me of the effort to ensure that UCD built sufficient housing for its own students, rather than converting existing sites within the city – which didn’t receive a great deal of support on this blog.

        5. Ron Oertel

           Craig:  ” . . . all the housing in town converted existing sites.”

          Bringing this back to the “other” Greenwald’s point, district elections may help ensure the continuation or expansion of this – particularly downtown or nearby (rentals, homeless services, etc.).

          With “regular” homeowners increasingly chased out of the area, with whatever consequences that entails for the city itself.

          (Might also displace commercial uses.)

          I’m still wondering why you didn’t understand what you wrote, yourself. Is it (once again) difficult to read on your phone? 😉

  5. John Hobbs

    OMG thanks for the laughs. One can scarcely imagine how “nimbyism” could be enhanced beyond 100% saturation. Davis, you’ve got to love it!  Foothill farms here I come, 1800sqft 4 bd 3bth 5000sqft lot, quiet, no view from next door neighbors $340K. (As opposed to a cracker box in North Covell Park at twice the price/sqft with half the lot.) ;>)/

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