By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Reasonable people can disagree on policy goals. That is the very foundation of our system of governance. It is why we need to have free and open elections to elect representative bodies and why we need to have vigorous and open public discussions and debates.
One thing that is underappreciated is that a fair and open process creates trust, whereas an unfair process, where those in the minority perceive the deck being stacked against them, creates distrust.
Last weekend I made the point that the city’s Housing Element Committee needs to be more inclusive of both sides of the room. There are two main advantages for a more equitable body of people serving on the committee.
First, by allowing for a wider range of viewpoints, problems can be better anticipated and shortcomings with the plan better mitigated.
The second is that by creating a more procedurally fair body, you engender trust.
Let me present just one example of this. One idea that has come out of the Housing Element process is the idea of pre-approvals. I have pitched this idea on a number of occasions. It is permissible under the current rules of Measure J. Basically it would allow properties to be designated as exempt for future Measure J votes.
In order to do this, the proposal itself requires a vote of the public. This would allow the city to list a number of properties that could be considered by the public, the public votes for them, and if the public approves the vote, the city would then engage in the normal planning process.
The advantage: first, it would allow the city to plan more holistically rather than project by project. Second, it would create more certainty for the developers who could then design the best possible project rather than necessarily one that could receive voter approval. Third, it allows the city to plan how much housing it can accommodate over the next planning period, and proceed accordingly.
But, as Eileen Samitz noted, there are concerns here as well.
She said, “Another very concerning issue is the concept proposed of the City having an ‘initiative’ to exempt the Wildhorse Farm and the property inside of the Mace Curve Signature.
“While the pitch for this was for ‘streamlining’ more development, the reality is that this is clearly an ‘end run’ around Measure J/R/D.”
She continued, “So, Davis citizens need to understand that if they support an initiative like this they would have no say on what got built on these properties. It would basically be a ‘blank check’ for the developers of those properties to build anything without the public having any meaningful input.”
Among her concerns: “For instance, it could mean more mega-dorms or more McMansions on these parcels, neither of which help to provide housing for our average workforce or families.
“Further, seven story buildings may be approved next to one story buildings and other types of incompatible development because it would be completely open-ended development that could allow crappy projects.”
She added, “The whole point of Measure J (now Measure D) is for the public to have some meaningful input and the leverage to get well-planned projects when either ag land or open space is being developed.”
None of these are unrealistic concerns. But they are concerns that can be addressed in the process.
By having people like Eileen Samitz and others who share her views, some of these problems can be anticipated and even addressed.
One of the reasons I like the pre-approval process is that, far from being an end-run around Measure J—you can’t end-run Measure J—it is actually something that requires no changes to the current laws.
Instead, whatever you decide to do must meet voter approval. So if the plan is too vague or akin to a blank check, the voters, as we have seen, will simply vote no.
But it doesn’t have to be a blank check. With a Measure J process, you have baseline features. In a pre-approval you don’t have the specificity you would have in a final Measure J vote, but you can lay out parameters.
For example, you would want to set a maximum number of units. You would want to set a maximum density and FAR. That would avoid concerns about seven-story buildings and “mega-dorms.” You could include sustainability baselines as well. You could limit the size of the units or the number of bedrooms. Anything you can stick into a project baseline feature, you can do in the pre-approval.
Would Eileen support the city creating a pre-approval on the area under the Mace Curve, which sets a maximum number of units, stipulates nothing over three stories (for example) and would preclude student housing (just to use an example)? I can’t speak for her, but it is certainly possible. She is far more likely to if she is engaged from the start, rather than feeling like the city is making an end-run around process.
Having spoke to planning folks, such a process would have to include some sort of EIR as well. So there would be a full public process—the only thing we would not have is a final design and plan. That would come after the pre-approval.
Maybe that is something the voters would approve. Perhaps not.
My point here is having the full discussion up front, hearing both sides (or more than two if there are any) of an issue, and attempting to address and mitigate concerns is a better way forward.
There may be some issues where two sides are diametrically opposed, and that’s fine. That’s why we have elections and votes. But there may also be areas of common ground that allow us to move forward in a less confrontational manner, because we worked together up front and gave everyone a stake in the process.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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