By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Davis and much of the rest of California is suffering from a housing crisis precisely because it is too difficult and takes too long to build housing and that makes the housing that we do have in short supply and too expensive.
Trackside greatly embodies this problem. Trackside was approved in 2017. Judge McAdam threw out that approval in 2019. The appellate court overturned that ruling at the end of 2021, and the process might not be done yet if the neighborhood decides to attempt to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
In my view, though, I was not in support of the Trackside proposal, once the council approved it, but the standard for overturning the approval had to be extremely high—an abuse of discretion. While you can argue that they subjectively overreached their authority, I don’t think that this is objectively the case.
Basically, the appellate court ruled along those lines.
“(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 Neighbors in their response to the court ruling argued, “Residents concerned about the unique feel of Davis should be troubled by this ruling. By overturning the trial court, the appeals court implies that the City does not have to keep its own commitments as implemented in the ordinances and planning documents.”
They add, “The appeals court grants the City license to take any provisions agreed upon by the community to protect neighborhoods or specific resources and then interpret them in a way that best serves the interests of developers or other special interests.”
I see it somewhat differently. The courts are not an extension of the land use battles for a community, they are and should be the vehicle of last resort to step in when the local body egregiously oversteps their boundaries.
The appellate court saw the guidelines as guidelines, not some sort of bright line that could not be crossed. Judge McAdam, in ruling as he did, took a subjective position and the court felt like the use of setbacks mitigated the impact of size and scale.
While I felt like McAdam got the ruling wrong and the appellate court got it right, in a lot of ways I agree with the neighborhood on this debate. Certainly coming forward with a six-story building next to an existing neighborhood was not a good idea. The applicant came back with a four-story alternative. The neighbors made a three-story suggestion.
Was there a way to bridge the remainder of the gap? I’m not sure. I ended up siding against the applicants here because I felt the process was adversarial and the project really did not advance a true housing need. Even though, in general, I am in favor of densification.
Still, the ruling by Judge McAdam was frankly shocking—one of the few times in my 15 years of doing this that I have been stunned by a development of this sort.
Whether we like the project or not, the city council ultimately has land use authority here, especially during a housing crisis—the courts should be erring on the side of council.
That didn’t happen here with Judge McAdam. And that was the basic problem. He made a subjective ruling on something that needed to be objectively wrong. That’s not how it is supposed to work here.
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.”
But somehow he determined that they had.
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 it ultimately ruled, “The City therefore acted within its discretion and the trial court erred in reversing its approval of Trackside.”
It wasn’t just me caught off guard by the ruling—the entire city was caught 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.
“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.”
I come down where Brett Lee did—I was not a fan of the project, but to argue that the council did not have discretion here or abused its discretion was a big stretch.
The city has over the last ten years or so prioritized infill and densification as a means to add housing. That’s strategic, of course, because of Davis’ Measure J and the requirement that any peripheral housing go to a vote of the people.
That has often pitted the need for new and additional housing against densification and necessarily increased heights, against the wishes of existing neighbors. The council has generally sided with the applicants here, though at times they have modified the design and scale as a means of finding a happy medium.
I guess my ultimate response here would be—if residents are concerned about densification and future Tracksides, they need to address it at the level of electing city councilmembers who agree with their view, rather than hoping that the courts will correct things after the fact.