By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – It has been two and a half years since Judge Sam McAdam threw out the approval of Trackside in a ruling in May of 2019. The city and applicant exercised their appeal rights in late July. In a strongly-worded decision, the appellate court has now reinstated Trackside’s approval and reversed McAdam.
“(W)e conclude substantial evidence supports the City’s approval in that we fail to find that ‘a reasonable person could not have reached the same conclusion’ based on the evidence before the City,” the court writes. “The City therefore acted within its discretion and the trial court erred in reversing its approval of Trackside.”
They add, ““We conclude substantial evidence supports the City’s approval, and the Association’s contentions on cross-appeal lack merit. We will therefore reverse the judgment granting the petition for writ of mandate.”
The city council in 2017 approved the Trackside project, a 27-unit, mixed-use, urban infill project located on a half-acre of mixed-use zoned land in a transition area between the Downtown Core and the Old East Davis residential neighborhood.
The Old East Davis Neighborhood Association filed a lawsuit regarding the Nov. 17, 2017, City Council approval of the Trackside project, arguing that the city had violated the design guidelines and approved a project of which the size and scale was out of compliance with the city’s governing documents.
In a 22 page ruling by Judge McAdam, he sided with the Neighborhood, “Based on the totality of circumstances and a review of the entire record, it is the conclusion of this Court that Trackside is not consistent with the City of Davis planning provisions governing the transition between the Core Area and to the Old East Davis neighborhood.”
As Judge McAdam put it, “the failure here is that the mass and scale of the proposed project is not reasonable under the current law and factual circumstances. There simply is not a logical and reasoned case to be made that Trackside is a ‘transition’ from the Core Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood. Trackside would overwhelm the existing residential neighborhood. It would not respect the traditional scale and character of the neighborhood. The record lacks evidentiary support for the City’s decision.”
Judge McAdam concluded, “Trackside is not consistent with the City of Davis planning provisions governing the transition between the Core Area to the Old East Davis neighborhood.”
The issue at contention, the appellate court reasoned, “is whether substantial evidence supports the City’s finding that Trackside serves as a ‘transition.’”
The court in this case “applied a formulistic approach, reasoning that a mixed-use building outside the downtown core could not exceed the height and size of a mixed-use building inside the downtown core and still be considered a transition.”
But the appellate court noted that they discounted a lot to do this and “it is not the court’s role to reweigh the factors unless no reasonable person could reach the same conclusion based on the evidence. And we see nothing in the planning documents that compels the conclusion that the City’s reliance on the cited factors was inherently unreasonable.”
The court added, “For its part, the Association points to nothing in the applicable planning documents that Trackside unambiguously ran afoul of.
“The Association argues Trackside cannot be a transition between the Core Area and Old East Davis if it is the largest building in the area. But nothing in the planning documents expressly compels that conclusion.”
Following the ruling, Kemble Pope and Steve Greenfield, the Managing Members of Trackside, LLC, the applicant in this case, issued a statement.
“We are pleased with the Court’s thorough review and legal validation of the City’s decision to approve our transit-oriented, environmentally progressive, infill project in Downtown Davis,” they said. “Our investor group, comprised of Davis residents, is glad that this four-year legal process is behind us.”
The statement added, “We are ready to move forward with our goal of creating 27 new residences and modern commercial spaces for local businesses in the core of our community, just a short walk from a busy Amtrak station and UC Davis. The time to jumpstart the revitalization of Downtown Davis is now!”
Mayor Gloria Partida said in the city’s release, “The Court of Appeal supported the decision of City Council to review thorough staff analysis of adopted city policies and take action after focused deliberations. I look forward to seeing a project move forward that will bring more vibrancy and residents to downtown Davis.”
Vice Mayor Lucas Frerichs added, “Prioritization of infill projects has been a priority of Davis land use policy as we promote them through our various adopted policy documents. Bringing additional people downtown to live, work and recreate, just a short distance from our major transit hub at the train station, is good for both our environment and economy, and it is also something we want to encourage more of in the future.”
The original ruling caught the city off guard.
“The ruling in this case is perplexing and runs contrary to the standard of law that applies to decisions by local jurisdictions,” said Mike Webb, City Manager said at the time of the ruling.
Judge McAdam acknowledged that the proper standard of review here was “abuse of discretion.” He wrote, “Under this standard, the Court must defer to the factual findings on consistency of the City unless no reasonable person could have reached the same conclusion on the evidence before it.”
“The ruling is a disappointing setback that undermines the authority of city officials to make difficult and complicated, local, land-use decisions,” said Councilmember Dan Carson at the time.
“Although I voted against the Trackside project, I believe the City Council does have discretion to decide as it did on this development issue,” said Davis Mayor Brett Lee. “I am surprised that the court felt otherwise.”
The appellate court reiterated a council’s determination that a project is consistent with the General Plan carries “a strong presumption of regularity,” and, “Its determination can be overturned only if it abused its discretion—that is, it did not proceed legally, its determination is not supported by the findings, or if the findings are not supported by substantial evidence.”
The court here ruled, “We therefore see no abuse of discretion in the City’s reliance on the “Increased building scale and height” language.” And ultimately ruled, “The City therefore acted within its discretion and the trial court erred in reversing its approval of Trackside.”
The residents have the option of appealing the matter to the state Supreme Court. Knowledgeable sources indicated the Supreme Court is highly unlikely to take up a case unless there is a compelling state constitutional issue that they wish to address.