For the last several weeks we have heard from people in the community complaining—rightly that the city and council circumvented the public process on BrightNight. Before that we heard loud complaints that the city was rushing through the ARC (Aggie Research Campus).
Most of those voices are likely to be quiet when it comes to the renewal of Measure J/Measure R. I don’t believe there has been any commission discussion of Davis’ seminal land use ordinance. And while I have been calling for discussion for over a year, it is put on the agenda when there is only two months remaining before it is required to be placed on the ballot.
Let us dispense with the formalities here. I support the renewal of Measure J/R. By and large, in a city like Davis, I think it is better to have an engaged process than have the uncertainty of people getting ballot signatures every time a peripheral development is approved by council.
Moreover, given the two projects that overwhelmingly passed in 2018, I believe that the vote will be 5-0 by the council to put Measure J on the ballot for renewal with only technical changes, and that the community will support the measure by about a 70-30 vote, maybe wider.
With all of that said, I think the issue of Measure J renewal has been mishandled by council and staff. They have assumed that there would be limited appetite for discussion. They have made it so there cannot be real discussion and I think there are real issues that we have not addressed with respect to Measure J.
One thing we have not looked at in any real way is what the impact is of Measure J. Oh we can list the projects, the first three failed (two by very wide margins) and the second two passed by wide margins. But that’s just a superficial impact.
We have had no study on the impact on home prices, the deterrent effect for new projects, the loss of affordable housing—none. People in this community call for commissions to review projects and policies, they call for evidence-based policy decisions, and yet, we have the cone of silence surrounding perhaps the one policy that has the biggest impact on a host of community-based effects, from home prices to lack of sales tax to the $10 million deficit.
When you start the process two months before it is due, there is a limit to how much you can find out.
Beyond this issue, my other chief problem here is that we have no idea if the policies that Measure R puts into place actually are workable.
The problem here is somewhat different. From 2000 to 2018, we had the one big question about Measure J/Measure R—would the community ever pass a project? That was answered and answered resoundingly in 2018 with two project passages by wide margins.
But that means that for the first 18 years of the policy, we basically didn’t have any evidence that the other provisions of Measure J/R were workable. By those I mean the project baseline features.
Under the current policy, a project is required to put key features of the project into project baseline features. I am very supportive of the idea that we need to put as much as possible into those features. The reason for that is it reassures the public that what they are being promised when they vote will be adhered to.
That makes a ton of political sense. But as we know from watching projects actually be developed over the years, things change. The markets change, the financing becomes a challenge, unanticipated costs and issues arise.
Project baseline features is a good political tool for community but also for the developer—but it could prove to be disastrous for a builder. The problem is, it is completely untested. We don’t know if this is workable.
Look at how many times Cannery had to come back to council, requesting changes to the development project—changes that if it had been a Measure R project would go to the voters. Many have used that as evidence of either duplicity or missteps by the developer, but it could be a factor that policies made for the purposes of gaining a 3-2 vote for the Cannery proved to be infeasible from the standpoint of actually building a project.
What if we are putting stuff into baseline features that actually in the real world needs more flexibility and the project ends up either having to go back to the voters a number of times or not being built? Shouldn’t we know this as we are about to renew a policy for another 10 years?
We are 18 years into an ordinance that has never actually had to be used other than the initial step of a vote.
There is a lot of unknown here. We don’t know the full impact of the policy and we don’t even know if the policy is workable for a project that gets passed by the voters.
In the end, this is going to get passed by the voters. But at some point here, we may well find that some of the secondary provisions are unworkable and they may gain legal challenge because a builder gets put into a bind.
Had Nishi failed in 2018, we might have seen a legal challenge at that time, challenging whether Measure J/Measure R is constitutional. Now we will see if the rest of the ordinance is workable.
It would have been good for the council to have evaluated some of these issues and held a full public discussion prior to this point. But I think the council still views Measure R as the third rail, and they don’t want to mess with it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting