Planning Commission to Examine Measure J Renewal

The Measure J renewal process will continue this week as the issue comes before the Planning Commission.  A few weeks ago the council was supportive of moving forward with the process with only what are considered a few minor technical changes to the 20-year-old city ordinance that requires a vote of the people for the conversion of land from agricultural to urban uses.

On Wednesday that process becomes more formalized.  With the Planning Commission asked to recommend that the City Council approve the new ordinance with the new sunset date of December 31, 2030, and also find that the extension of the new ordinance is exempt from further environmental review pursuant to CEQA.

The measure, originally passed by the voters in 2000 and extended in 2010, “requires a vote of the citizens before land can be re-designated from agriculture or open space to any urban use, as those land uses appear in the 1999 land use map in the City’s former General Plan.”  It also requires a vote on two large parcels—the Covell Village site and the Nishi property, for which the voters approved a project in 2018.

Staff notes, “Measure J is intended to serve as an additional procedural stage of review for any development project that proposes to convert agriculturally designated land to an urban use, whether for residential or commercial purposes.”

Staff further writes, “Fundamentally, Measure J was adopted as an agricultural land preservation and citizen ratification tool. It was not necessarily intended to manage or limit growth.”  They add, “Measure J is intended to be used in conjunction with a number of other tools for community planning, growth management, and citizen participation.”

Since its adoption, four development proposals have been subject to the Measure J vote.  Nishi went before the voters twice—failing in 2016 and passing in 2018 with a modified proposal.

The first three Measure R projects all failed—with the 2005 Covell Village site and the proposed 1864 residential units going down to a 60-40 defeat.  In 2009, the 191 residential unit Wildhorse Ranch site, put before the voters in the heart of the Great Recession, went down to a 75-25 defeat.

The original Nishi vote narrowly failed by around 700 votes, but the all-student housing, university-only access project passed overwhelmingly in 2018.  Also in 2018, the West Davis Active Adult Community proposal on 75 acres of land with 560 residential units passed by a solid ten point margin.

When the matter came before the council two weeks ago, the council was overwhelmingly supportive of the renewal of the ordinance.

Councilmember Will Arnold said, “Had we still never seen a successful project go through the Measure J process to be approved, my concerns about the value and efficacy of Measure J would be significant.”

However, with two projects passing in 2018, he said “that doesn’t mean Measure J is perfect but it does mean it’s not fatally flawed.”

Councilmember Arnold also expressed another clear theme from the council—any changes to Measure J will have to come from the voters rather than council.

“Because Measure J was a community driven proposal and ultimately was passed and then reaffirmed overwhelmingly by the voters,” he said, “it’s my opinion that any changes to Measure J of any substance needs to be that same community-driven process.”

He added, “I would be very reticent about the council proposing any significant changes.”

These views were largely echoed by much of the council.

However, Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida, while not willing to undo Measure J/R, expressed some concerns, “I also think we need to acknowledge some pretty negative impacts that we have created” with the city’s overall policy on development.

“Our cost of housing has increased so much that it’s impossible for people who grew up here, to stay here,” she said.  “It’s also made it impossible for graduates of UC Davis to stay here as I did 30 years ago.

“These types of initiatives cause a lack of diversity in communities,” she said, regarding racial and socio-economic issues.  “It’s a sad irony that most of the progressive cities in America are also the most segregated.”

She added, “When we say we’re trying to preserve our life and the environment through this measure, we must acknowledge that mostly (what) we’re preserving is the footprint of the city.  Unless we are working to provide some infill housing and really work on mitigating the effects of the increase of the population here, I think we need to do a better job there.”

Staff believes that the extension of Measure J is exempt from additional environmental review under CEQA.

They note, “The Ordinance was originally adopted by the voters in May 2000. Thereafter, the City prepared the 2001 General Plan which accounts for, and is inclusive of, Measure J, and for which an Environmental Impact Report was prepared and certified in May 2001.”

They write, “This Ordinance remains consistent with the 2001 General Plan as there are no substantive changes to the Ordinance and the only changes are technical in nature.”

They add that there are no physical impacts with implementing the continuation of this ordinance and it is exempt under Section 15183 of CEQA as it is “a project consistent with the General Plan and Zoning.”

Assuming support by the Planning Commission, staff would bring it back to the council in June to introduce the ordinance and place it on the ballot in November for voter consideration.

—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. Doby Fleeman

    Sad to have to say this, but it would be nice to see both the Planning Commission and Finance & Budget Commission use the occasion of this renewal as leverage to force some tangible progress on the dual challenges of Sustainable Community Planning and Fiscal Sustainability.   Both of which have been largely ignored over the course of the past 20 years.

    The environmental movement has no absolute claim to the sustainability moniker.   Roads, Schools and Fiscal Resilience  should be right up there on the same pedestal as the environment – each requiring long term planning, maintenance, mapping  and investment for the future.

    One approach might be for the commissions to recommendation a two year renewal of the existing ordinance, with the caveat that during those two years, the City be required to conduct sufficient research – a full and complete picture of the City’s plans for fiscal and demographic resilience together with a detailed update of  the City’s land use plans and urban limit lines for the next twenty years.   A general plan update by any other name, but perhaps more manageable.

    Other than holding this renewal hostage, I don’t know how else to light a fire under the City and its Commissions that would cause the City to collect and analyse the data necessary to squarely and openly address the need  and role of  future growth and development in order restore economic and fiscal sustainability to the City and our schools.

    1. Alan Miller

      Agree whole-heartedly on the two-year renewal.  The problem of course is that would require the present Council to do the heavy-lifting, rather than passing on the damage to future Councils.

  2. Ron Glick

    I agree completely about a two year renewal and the need for a serious re-examination of J/R and honest debate. Maybe the Planning Commission can provide that guidance. Certainly the City Council and staff showed no interest in doing so. Much to my chagrin, they made no attempt to engage with looking for ways to improve the ordinance, even after 20 years.

    Shameful dereliction of their responsibility to do so, in my opinion, being the elected officials responsible for placing the renewal before the voters. Perhaps the Planning Commission can do better.

  3. Jeff Boone

    Although I was not always happy with his policy direction and focus related to city business, I remain a fan of Robb Davis because he appears, at this point, to be one of the few Davis city council members that remained authentic in his words and actions, and demonstrated the related political bravery in a consistent manner.

    I am not sure about the current council, but my suspicion is that most of them, if not all of them, are interested in a political career beyond the City of Davis.

    Not that there is anything wrong with that per se, but I do see the career-focused politician as having to shape-shift into inauthentic positions in order to keep the angry opposition mob from demanding their political head.

    I wonder if anyone can do the Davis council job well while also pursuing a larger and longer political career.  Or even the eight year gig that returns healthcare for life benefits.

    The design of representative democracy is one where people of the community are elected to serve the community… not serve themselves.  We all know that Davis’s financial situation has been dire for decades and we have debated that situation for decades.  Anyone with knowledge and intellectual honesty can see that Measure J/R has been a giant mistake contributing to that dire fiscal situation.  Yes, there is another issue with over-spending on City labor, but that is a ubiquitous problem throughout the state and much of the country.

    It seems we lack the City leadership with the stones to make the tough decisions that navigate the ship to the correct heading.  Meanwhile we keep sailing toward a place where the ship will undoubtedly run aground and future generations will be left dealing with the mess.

    1. Ron Glick

      The irony here is that the best way to seek higher office has been to simply focus on the job you were elected to do instead of thinking how something will play going forward. I think if you look at the Governor’s office you can see this play out. When California has a Governor who thinks he (they have all been men to date) can become President they often start focusing on how something will play nationally and this is often to the detriment of California. Pete Wilson, Gray Davis and Jerry Brown his first two terms, all could have governed better if they hadn’t let ambition get in the way. Deukmajian, Arnold and Jerry Brown the second two terms, didn’t believe they would be President and I believe served the people of California better.

      The jury is still out on Newsome but its promising because I can’t believe he legalized gay marriage as Mayor of SF thinking it would propel him to where he is today. Okay call me naive.

      At the local level Lois Wolk was always able to focus on what was right in front of her and ended up with the maximum time allowed in the legislature after being on the CC, serving as mayor and even getting  a couple of years on the Board of Supervisors.

      My problem with the CC isn’t that they put renewal on the ballot. My issue is that they didn’t even bother to consider any substantive changes after 20 years, something they should have at least considered. It was a complete abdication of responsibility unless you believe that there is nothing that should be done to improve the ordinance.

      1. David Greenwald

        “My problem with the CC isn’t that they put renewal on the ballot. My issue is that they didn’t even bother to consider any substantive changes after 20 years, something they should have at least considered. It was a complete abdication of responsibility unless you believe that there is nothing that should be done to improve the ordinance.”

        This is my problem as well – but I can understand why they might be reluctant since every time I put forth even a very mild and limited suggestion to look at possibilities of change, I get accused by multiple people of attempting to undermine Measure R. Why would someone who needs to run for reelection want to deal with that, especially now?

    2. Doby Fleeman

      While Robb Davis has most certainly remained authentic in his words and actions, on this particular issue – involving a willingness to looking under the hood to identify and diagnose what has been ailing our local economy – I ‘m not seeing the distinction you have outlined with regards to aspiration for higher office.

      The 2017 State of the City Report was issued in May of 2017 – a full year before transition to Mayor Lee’s administration in June of 2018.    During that period, the City Council declined to discuss the findings outlined in the 2017 Report nor their implications for future planning and fiscal sustainability of the City.

      With this report, the Planning Commission had offered up its best efforts towards identifying a set of comparable communities for comparison and discussion  –  the table was set – but nobody showed up for dinner.  Sorry, but that’s the record.

      Never too llate to start the process, but there are sometime costs associated with being too little and too late – and I’d say that’s where we stand today.

      To it’s credit, the Finance and Budget Commission is way ahead of other cities across both California and the Nation in terms of confronting its fiscal challenges and in having adopted an approach to financial accounting which should be the gold standard for all other communities.  We, in Davis, have the distinct advantage of knowing – real time – what is likely in store financially for the City and in the realization that consequential changes will be necessary to avert the rocky shoals you describe.

      1. Matt Williams

        Doby, I think there is a bit more nuance than that.

        At the 2019 State of the City presentation (I attended the March 13, 2019 one hosted by the Chamber at El Macero Country Club), I was impressed with how forthright Brett Lee and Mike Webb were about the fiscal challenges the City faced at that time.  They were openly candid about the $8 million Budget Shortfall.

        I realize that you want a “deeper” dive under the hood “to identify and diagnose what has been ailing our local economy,” but I do believe that candid presentation was consistent with the “authenticity” you attribute to Robb Davis … an authenticity that I 100% agree Robb has.

        Unfortunately in that March 2019 presentation both Brett and Mike bought into a very optimistic view of where the City was headed.  Together, they went on to say that with Cannabis revenue and additional Hotels Tax revenue, etc. they expected that Budget Shortfall to be “cut in half” to $4 million per year at the same time next year.

        That unrealistically optimistic bubble was very quickly burst three months later when Finance Director Nitish Sharma presented the FY 2019-2021 Budget to Council.  What that presentation, and supportive documents, showed was that the annual Budget Shortfall had not dropped from $8 million to $4 million, but rather had risen from $8 million to $10 million.

        Numerous times over the next six months Council member Dan Carson tried to optimistically hang on to the $8 million number when he talked about the Shortfall even though the Budget said otherwise.  Then on January 13th (exactly 10 months after March 13th) Bob Leland told the 20-year Budget Shortfall had risen from $201 million to $258 million.

        Our elected political leaders were facing a reality where instead of dropping from $160 million to $80 million the Shortfall has risen from $160 million to $258 million.  That is the kind of economic/fiscal performance that will scare many an elected official into abandoning “authenticity.”

        1. David Greenwald

          Matt – My sense has remained –

          (1) the council dropped cost containment as a goal and that’s hugely problematic because without containing the rate of increases you lose the value of revenue generation. Rich Rifkin’s idea was to limit the growth of total comp, but council has allowed that number to be two percent which puts a fairly heavy burden on revenue generation. Especially when you get unexpected hits. Better than it was 15 years ago, but they should do more.

          (2) Council wanted to fix revenue through low hanging fruit. Cannabis and hotels were ways to do that in their view. The problem is that they had to do something more – and that’s where the Downtown Plan and DISC come in. The problem is that neither are going to generate revenue any time soon, which is why they needed the parcel tax in 2018 to shore up the roads. But to get that, they needed more lift than simply putting it on the ballot.

        2. Doby Fleeman


          I think  perhaps you misunderstand my main point – a problem I regularly seem to encounter.  Attributable, I’d guess, to my poor communications skills, or as the publisher of our local newspaper once observed:   “Accountants can’t write.”

          I never mean’t to imply that our elected leaders, commissions and appointed officials don’t regularly and accurately report on the challenging and deteriorating nature of the City’s finances.   If that’s how you interpret my comments I apologize and stand corrected.

          I mean’t to say that the 2017 City Council missed an open invitation and opportunity – given  the comparative cities contents of the 2017 State of the City report – to open a deeper dialogue concerning a deliberate, long term strategy to begin addressing our long term structural deficit.

          It’s one thing to admit we have serious challenges.   In most case, one’s next step would be to ask why?   In the case of Davis, we’ve tried cutting City staff by 20%, we’ve updated our accounting models to reflect accrual accounting, and we’ve added hotels and we’ve legalized marijuana – and we still seem to have a problem.

          I’m simply curious why we can’t sit down around a table, similar to the DSIDE initiative, let down our hair and with open book discuss the remaining underlying issues and as we strategically explore our best options going forward to “Design a Sustainable and Innovative Davis Economy”.

          Why does that curiosity seem to be missing from today’s conversation?

  4. Ron Oertel

    The handful of people who don’t like this measure have had 10 years to make their case.

    They just don’t like it, plain-and-simple.

    By the way, Rik previously posted information which shows that Measure J/R did not cause housing prices in Davis to rise faster than surrounding communities.  I could post that information again, but it would probably go down a rabbit hole.

  5. Alan Miller

    I so appreciated Gloria Partida’s comments on this issue.  I just wish she had followed-up by taking the bold stance of voting “No”.

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