Guest Commentary: Accusation that City Is Intentionally Driving Burrowing Owls Out on Mace 25

by Alan Pryor

Mace-25 is an 25-acre City-owned site purchased by the City of Davis with Open Space tax revenues. The Open Space Ordinance passed by the voters of Davis says such lands purchased with tax monies are to be kept in perpetuity as open space.  Up until now, Mace-25 has been leased only for dry-land farming for a nominal annual amount or lay dormant. Directly adjacent and northwest of this site on County-owned land on the Mace curve are where Burrowing Owl burrows have been established and maintained for at least a decade. Mace 25 is in the middle of an historic burrowing owl breeding colony. At least one of the burrows is currently occupied by a nesting pair of Burrowing Owls – one of the few remaining breeding pairs in Davis. These burrows have been repeatedly used year-after-year while using the Mace-25 land as foraging habitat.

Directly south and east of Mace-25 and north of I-80 are approximately 200 acres of farmland which is proposed to be annexed into the City and converted to a business park by the local developer and oil distributor, Ramco. Ramco’s original development proposal in 2016 included building on all of the Mace-25 land for inclusion in the business park. Public outcry over this taking of city-owned and taxpayer-funded open space, however, caused the developer to withdraw the idea of including all of Mace-25 as buildable land when they revised their proposed project in 2019. Now they only want to “take” about 9.2 acres of the Mace-25 City-owned land and use it for their “agricultural buffer” required under Davis zoning laws affecting new development bordering existing ag lands.

Complicating even this new plan, however, was the ongoing presence of the Burrowing Owls directly adjacent to Mace-25. If the developer’s plans could theoretically impact the Burrowing Owl population (which likelihood MUST be quantitatively addressed in the forthcoming Environmental Impact Report on the project), then the developer could be forced into expensive and time-consuming mitigation measures.

Staff’s Secretive Scheme

A City Staff memo recently revealed a previously secret plan to intentionally and stealthily drive one of the few remaining pairs of breeding Burrowing Owls left in Davis off of their nesting sites adjacent to Mace-25. Staff’s ONLY reason for doing so, now admitted in the same Staff memo, is that they do not want the owls to nest on the adjacent City-owned Mace-25 open space land because they do not want to have to “evict” the owls later IF the site is ever “urbanized” (e.g. developed for the Aggie Research Complex).

The truth, however, is that not only would the developer have to “evict ” any owls on Mace-25, but they would have to provide vastly increased mitigation lands elsewhere that must be suitable for such Burrowing Owl habitat as recommended by a licensed expert. This could prove to be very expensive and time-consuming to the developer. It would be far better for the developer if the Burrowing Owls were never even there when the project starts construction in the future and that’s what Staff is seemingly scheming to accomplish.

The City says they are going to accomplish this “voluntary” relocation by letting the grasses and weeds grow so high on the Mace-25 City-owned property that the owls will be unable to forage in the tall plants nor be able to see predators approaching their burrows. So functionally the City is saying they are going to starve the owls out or make it more likely that predators will kill the small owls. This environmentally repugnant act is actually sanctioned by the current City Manager Mike Webb and Assistant City Manger Ash Feeney (who is charged with ushering in the Aggie Research Complex business park) with the complicit cooperation of City Wildlife Manager John McNerney.

The Memo Exposing This Scheme

If you find it hard to believe that the City could be so environmentally callous and behave in such a ecologically reprehensible manner, the following memo will confirm their intentions. It was written to Burrowing Owl Preservation Society (BOPS) President, Catherine Portman, by City Staff. This memo (with emphasis added) was in response to BOPS request to the City to allow them to install an artificial owl burrow on Mace-25 at BOPS sole installation expense and maintenance cost to improve the habitat on Mace-25 for Burrowing Owls.

Staff’s Plan is a Gross Violation of Public Trust

Even though Staff has said they have no direction from Council to manage the Mace-25 land for any specific purpose, in fact they are de-facto expressly managing it for the eventual benefit of the business park developer – and to the extreme detriment of the resident Burrowing Owls. It is almost unbelievable that City Staff has knowingly and willfully conspired to force out a California Species of Special Concern away from a City-owned Open Space to serve a developer’ needs and the attendant economic needs of the City for construction and property tax revenues. This is clearly an egregious breach of the public trust in our City government.

It is even more outrageous when one considers the developer who will benefit from this killing is Dan Ramos of Ramco, the developer of the Aggie Research Complex business park. Long time Davisites will remember it was Dan’s father, Frank Ramos of Ramco, who flagrantly and intentionally violated the law when Ramco disced under burrows and killed owls almost exactly 20 years ago in the development of Mace Ranch Park. It seems the current acorn (Dan Ramos) has indeed, not dropped far from the tree (Frank Ramos). The only difference now is Dan Ramos has City Staff to do his environmental “modification” for him. What is also amazing in the City’s memo is their clear acknowledgment that “urbanization” of Mace-25 is even being considered since it is otherwise supposed to be protected as open space “in perpetuity” under the City’s voter-approved Open Space Ordinance.

Has Staff Gone Rogue or is the City Council Complicit?

The Staff memo also claims that Staff’s actions must be taken because they are consistent with Council policy on this plot of land. Well last year, representatives of the Burrowing Owl Preservation Society, the Sierra Club Yolano Group, and Yolo Audubon individually met with everyone on the current City Council to advocate for retaining ownership of Mace-25 and not selling it to Ramco for inclusion  in the Aggie Research Complex as proposed by the developer. Further, we advocated for conservation of the property as California Prairie Grassland which is a unique and diverse ecological environmental that was once widespread but that has been decimated in California due to rapid sprawl of cities and agriculture. We noted that this type of rapidly shrinking ecological niche is critically important for nesting and foraging by Burrowing Owls.  We also claimed the minimal revenues received by the City by leasing the land for agriculture were minuscule compared to the value of the land as conserved open space on which a protected species is struggling.

Each of the Councilmembers expressed their desires to have Mace-25 either maintained as habitat or at least they wanted a public discussion to be held at the Council level with input by the Open Space and Habitat Commission and Staff.  Well, the Open Space and Habitat Commission held their meeting and their minutes reflect that they unanimously agreed that Mace-25 should be kept as Open Space for burrowing owl habitat, farming, passive recreation, or a combination of the three.  At least one current Commissioner claims that the question of intentionally driving or keeping out Burrowing Owls from Mace-25 was NEVER even discussed by the Commission or proposed by Staff.

But despite being promised that the subject of Mace-25 land use would be publicly discussed before the City ceded control to Ramco, City Council has, in fact, seen plans by Ramco to take as much as 9.2 acres of the Mace-25 land and use it for a buffer zone for their massive business park. There has not been any objections voiced by any Council member against this new developer-driven plan to partially use Mace-25 nor any calls for public discussion.

And there has been absolutely no discussion of what, if anything, the developer Ramco would pay to use this land which clearly furthers their business park development goals. Further, the developer has even refused to commit to any details as to how the ag buffer land they would be granted at Mace-25 would be used or maintained saying such decisions would only be made AFTER the business park has been approved by voters. Judging from past actions from Ramco with respect to preservation of Burrowing Owl habitat, however, this does not bode well for our amazingly endearing feathered friends at the site.

The discrepancy between what we were individually told by individual Council members last year and Staff’s current actions means either that 1) Council has not given any direction at all to Staff and Staff is ignoring the intent of the Open Space ordinance to preserve open space in perpetuity, or 2) Staff is ignoring any directions from Council to preserve the land until a public discussion is had, or 3) the City Council is complicit and approves of these actions by Staff. No matter which of these options are true, it does little to foster faith in our City government.

City Staff has a History of Burrowing Owl Habitat Mismanagement

We also noted in our meetings with the Council that the Burrowing Owl population in Yolo County has decreased by about 75% in the last decade and by at least that amount in Davis. Locally, we know a primary contributory cause is gross mismanagement of Burrowing Owl habitat on public lands owned and/or maintained by the City.

The City’s track record in maintaining Burrowing Owl habitat on other public lands managed by the City under the current Wildlife Manager, John McNerney, has been dismal indeed. One only has to look at the City’s woefully inadequate efforts to fulfill their contractual obligations to maintain Burrowing Owl habitat by mowing excessively high grasses and weeds at the Burrowing Owl Preserve at Grasslands Park and the ag buffer at the Wildhorse Golf Course. Both of these sites had numerous breeding Burrowing Owl pairs ten years ago but irresponsible and incompetent management of the grass height at each of these sites has resulted in all of those owls being killed or “voluntarily” relocated”. Mr. McNerney is actually getting pretty good at mismanaging Burrowing Owl habitat and almost our entire population of Burrowing Owls has been driven away from Davis or killed in only 10 years. I have no doubt Mr. McNerney would have also been similarly successful in driving the Burrowing Owls away from Mace-25, with the approval of senior City management, had we not exposed Staff’s secretive plan.

Enough is enough! It is time to stop this assault on our Burrowing Owls’ population  in Davis by City Staff whose only commitments are to developer’s profits and future City construction and property tax revenues. .

Please demand that Council order the City Manager to just mow the grass on Mace-25 and to keep it mowed according to the long-standing recommendations of BOPS.

 

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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24 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    I am very tired of these constant attacks on city staff. You don’t serve your cause well when you resort to invective and personal attacks like this. I’m sure we could have a reasonable discussion about best management practices for burrowing owls, but not with this as a starting point.

    1. Craig Ross

      I agree.

      I don’t get the issue even.  Most of Mace 25 is a plowed field, so it doesn’t have owls on it.  They are just trying to keep it that way as the voters weigh in on the surrounding area.  Why is that a bad thing?  Seems like very few people actually care about this anyway.

    2. Alan Pryor

      I’m sure we could have a reasonable discussion about best management practices for burrowing owls

      I agree. I am attacking City Staff precisely because we are NOT having a reasonable discussion about Burrowing Owl habitats. The decision to evict the owls was unilaterally made by Staff behind closed doors without any consultation with any local environmental or habitat preservation groups or burrowing owl experts.  The decision was NOT even disclosed to the Open Space and Habitat Commission even though they had a meeting only a week before. Were it not for this one email, Staff’s intentions and actions would have gone completely undicovered.

      And their claims that they were only following Council direction is a lie. Council goals are clear that habitat is to be preserved especially those protected by Open Space tax monies. Staff has said because we don’t have an easement on Mace-25 yet so it may, in fact, be “urbanized”. How convenient!  There just happens to be a proposal on the table to use more than a third of it for ARC for the sole purpose that ARC can build right up to the edges of their existing acreage.

      Using public open space for development buffers has NEVER been done before in Davis and Staff is trying their best to accomodate this plan by driving the owls out without any public discussion whatsoever.  So yes, when closed door decisions are made by Staff that could negatively affect special status species, especially one that the City Staff has done such an objecively lousy job protecting their habitat in Davis over the past decade, then they deserve to have their misdeeds and dirty laundry hung out for the world to see.

      If you want to call that a “personal attack”, have at it, Don.  Would your alternative approach be to let the owls be driven out and then sit and nicely ask Staff if that was the right decision after one of the last few breeding pairs of owls has been driven from Davis. Staff got caught trying to pull an environmental fast one on the owls and their supporters and they should be called out for it.

      Even more so when the decision was made in advance of the public hearings that we were promised by every one of the Council members. This is an issue of trust and Staff has clearly demonstrated that we cannot trust them to do things openly and transparently.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Were it not for this one email, Staff’s intentions and actions would have gone completely undiscovered.

        If only there was a “community watchdog/blog”, to shed light on such issues.

        City staff (e.g., Ash Feeney) are clearly “boosters” of this proposal, and are not simply processors of the development application.  That bias was pretty clear, during the planning commission workshop.

        As an example, Mr. Feeney (during his presentation) totally disregarded the suggestion (made several months ago) to examine under-utilized commercial sites within the city.

         

  2. Doby Fleeman

    Since this is presumptively “all about the owls”, I’m curious about how the adjacent Mace 391 Burrowing Owl population has fared under its Ag use designation.   Has the population increased or decreased since the city decided in favor of Ag use versus commercial use?   Surely, somebody has done a follow up study.

    Assuming the Ag designation has resulted in stabilization of the population, shouldn’t that land use decision by the City be sufficient for purposes of burrowing owl habitat in this particular quadrant – that’s 15 times the size of this parcel – or is an Ag use designation just as deleterious to burrowing owl habitat as commercial development?  To the layman, it would be nice to know.

    It seems totally unreasonable that the city and the community should be permanently held hostage in their striving to establish places to support commercial enterprise, well paying jobs, and a fiscally sustainable, local economy.   It’s fine to press for multiple goals in planning, however this type of micro focused, divide and destroy (destroy a holistic conversation about the larger issues facing the community) approach to planning is not serving the best interests of the community.

    With regard to this singular issue – protection of burrowing owl habitat – how much is enoough?

      1. Doby Fleeman

        Either hold your authors and posters to account – or stop the whining.

        If the Vanguard can’t provide a reliable platform to foster responsible, responsive and engaged public discussion and debate – it is little more than a high visibility campaign platform and tool for those seeking to divide and destroy legitimate community discussion and debate.

        If posters are interested in burrowing owls, more affordable housing construction, improved  circulation and roadways, or public transportation options – then let them present their proposals and ideas from other communities which are ahead of Davis with tangible, successful programs.  We just might learn something in the process.

        To repeatedly state there is a problem and that either the State or some Developer is responsible to fix the underlying problem is not a solution – it simply gets in the way and distracts from a meaningful discussion of legitimate, underlying issues facing the community.

         

    1. Alan Pryor

      I’m curious about how the adjacent Mace 391 Burrowing Owl population has fared under its Ag use designation.

      It has plummeted because the entirety of Mace-391 (except for Mace-25), was put in almond orchards that, unless grown organically, have almost no habitat value for wild species. Conventional almond farmers kill all the native plants with herbicides and kill all of the squirrels with poison so it’s no surprise that the burrowing owls opulation has plummeted in that area over the last 10 years.

      With regard to this singular issue – protection of burrowing owl habitat – how much is enoough?

      There is almost no California Grassland Praire habitat left in Davis. The ag buffer by the gold course used to be heavily populated with burrowing owls and the owls were beloved by both the golfers and walkers on the peripheral trail around the golf course. However, years of neglect by the City who was otherwise supposed to maintain the ag buffer and keep the invasive grasses short have resulted in a severe decline in population.

      The City neglected their responsibilities so severely that the golf course often stepped in on numerous occasiosn to mow the area when it got to be a jungle. Similarly, Davis was contractiually obligated to keep the grass mowed at the Burrowing Owl Preserve but violated the terms of their contract for so many years (and all of the owls ended up leaving) that the County ended up taking back control from the City and is doing a fair job of keeping the grass shorter with grazing sheep and periodic mowing.

      How much is enough? We’ll never know if what little there is is not maintained and the few owls left are intentionally driven away.

      1. Doby Fleeman

        Funny, I don’t seem to recall the Yolo Land Trust, the City, or Mayor Krovoza making any issue of the owls during that entire conversation as they hastily conveyed the land in perpetuity for such purpose.

         

         

         

         

        1. Doby Fleeman

          Matt,

          It only seems reasonable to expect of the City, when faced with such decisions (and this was an unusual one in which the city found itself in possession of a choice parcel adjoining an existing arterial that could have been a wonderful site for a new innovation center) that there be some process whereby the Pros and Cons can be thoughtfully compared and consider before a final decision.   Sure there were discussions and outspoken advocates for the commercial development option.

          What was missing, as is now, was context and background.  To be fair, there was significantly more background and active discussion, at that time, concerning Davis’ need for diversifying its employment and tax base.   But, at least as I recall, we never saw was an apples to apples comparison of what each land use decision would potentially mean for the future trajectory of our local Davis economy and its operating revenue model.

          Imagine a chart comparing the potential value to the City and the Community of Option A and Option B – with Option A being a 390 acre commercial development (or even a 200 acre park with 200 acres to conservation easement) – the new jobs it would support, the construction jobs it would create, the development fees it would generate, the addition of new employers, property taxes and sales taxes generated.   The City could have potentially retained an interest – offering an attractive land lease arrangement to attract new commercial developers (and a permanent income stream to the City).   This type of public-private partnership is exactly how many of the country’s most successful innovation centers have emerged.

          But without the data to support a true recognition, acknowledgement and discussion of the City’s future financial challenges, its shifting demographics, its rapidly diminishing inventory of developable land (following a century of continuous growth) – there was no compelling priority to drive such a discussion or introspection.

          Today, the parallels are undeniable as we are once again presented with a valuable opportunity to assess both our current status and to consider our strategies and options going forward, as we chart a future course for the City and the Community.

  3. Ron Glick

    I’ve been in Davis for nearly thirty years. In all that time I’ve never seen owls prevail when push came to shove. Its sad but true but its doubtful that this is where the community is going to rise up and say enough. The irony of the Mace 391 story is particularly infuriating because of the financial loss to the city and the loss of the owls. It was a lose lose.

    1. Doby Fleeman

      Ron,

      Thank you.

      I’ve never heard that sentiment or acknowledgement – either from a Councilmember or a dedicated environmentalist like Alan.

      I agree, it is profoundly infuriating and ironic.

       

      1. Don Shor

        It is difficult for me to begin to express how completely I disagree with your assessment of the Mace 391 process and outcome. So I’ll just suggest to readers that they do a search if they wish to review the discussion on the Vanguard several years ago when the decision to proceed with the long-planned, fully vetted, thoroughly-discussed plan to put Mace 391 into permanent ag conservation status occurred. I participated in that discussion here, under my own name, and spent a lot of time debating with people who chose to do otherwise. That was, in fact, quite infuriating, and I find the rehashing now to be profoundly ironic.
        The City of Davis is not in the land development business.

        1. Ron Glick

          The City of Davis is not in the land development business but its not for lack of trying. The attempt by the city to develop Mace 391 was in fact an attempt by the city to try to right the City’s fiscal ship by becoming the owner of that development. It would have generated millions a year in much needed revenue for the city on an ongoing basis. Instead we got another almond orchard, a sales tax increase,  an ongoing structural deficit nobody knows how to fix and it appears loss of burrowing owl habitat anyway.

          A decade later we can now see the fallout from the decision to go with ag preservation instead of development. Enough time has passed that a review is merited.

          1. Don Shor

            The attempt by the city to develop Mace 391 was in fact an attempt by the city to try to right the City’s fiscal ship

            It wasn’t “an attempt by the city.” It was an attempt by an outsider to derail the process at the last minute with a phantom proposal that had no substance.

        2. Ron Glick

          I beg to differ. Anyway, the result was that the city has never gotten  out from under its structural deficit and sold the land with a conservation easement for a fraction of what it was worth for development. We might not have the worst roads in the county today had the city gone a different way.

  4. Doby Fleeman

    Don,

    Neither should be the Yolo Land Trust when it comes to matters directly impacting the future financial trajectory and fiscal sustainability of the City.

    Please give us some cites/reports of the comprehensive analysis performed.

    1. Don Shor

      The process of putting land outside the city limits into an ag conservation easement went through all of the appropriate commissions and city council meetings. They were fully noticed agenda items, with public comment allotted and discussion by the city council members in full view of the public. There were plenty of opportunities to present alternative proposals during that process. The last-minute attempt, endorsed and abetted by some in the business community, to scuttle that decision was hastily contrived and turned out to be set on a very shaky foundation.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Please note the dates of the two ‘memos’ cited.

        The first, dated March 5, 2020, requests permission to place an artificial owl habitat on land slated to be used for ag… which includes cultivation, such as discing, furrowing, both incompatable with habitat for ground squirrels or burrowing owls…

        Mr Pryor alleges a plot… I believe there indeed is one… the land was NOT designated as habitat for burrowing owls… the e-mail to CITY STAFF (not CC) requests it be treated that way…

        I strongly believe there is indeed a “plot”… and, a ‘set-up’… but not by City staff…

        If I am correct, and the rapidity and public nature of Mr Pryor and others’ to the March 7 reply, and the invective engaged in by Mr Pryor, who has no prior (pun intended) professional background in wildlife biology (though he questions the background of a city employee in that regard), well… connect the dots… I believe there is an orchestrated plot… but not by City staff… another clue… originally, the WH buffer was planted with native grass, other native plant species… I know not how that may have changed.

         

  5. Doby Fleeman

    Don,

    Refer me to the Staff report – that’s all I ask.

    Who do you think helped recruit Rob White to Davis if not the business community?

    This was about the potential of a local, internally generated economic development initiative to assist the City and community in lifting our own bootstraps  – rather than asking for more taxes or a hand out from the State.

     

     

     

     

    1. Ron Glick

      “It was an attempt by an outsider to derail the process at the last minute with a phantom proposal that had no substance.”

      Its not how I remember it either.

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