By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – I wanted to tie a couple of different threads of discussion together here. At the outset I will make two policy statements. First, for my 16 years of running the Vanguard, I have supported Measure J’s right of the citizens to vote on the conversions of agricultural land to urban uses and I have generally supported infill over greenfield projects.
However, as a practical matter, I believe I have voted yes on all of the Measure J projects except Measure X in 2005.
Does that mean I have supported sprawl as one commenter put it? I don’t think so. In fact, that commenter offered a definition of sprawl as the “endless expansion by any city onto surrounding farmland…”
What is interesting about that definition is that while that commenter has generally connoted sprawl for any peripheral project, at the same time, their definition really forecloses the possibility of true sprawl in Davis because Measure J de facto precludes any sort of “endless” expansion because of the braking mechanism provided to the voters.
Could that change in the future? Of course. But that seems unlikely. Moreover, we are talking about the here and now. The voters have approved just two projects and only the one in West Davis really expanded the city’s boundaries.
In a very real sense, Measure J was implemented to stop Davis from sprawl. And it continues to serve that function.
The problem that I see right now, is that we have swung the pendulum too far away from growth. Realistically, we are not going to meet our housing needs now strictly through infill. That was the point of several columns this week.
That brings me to the other thread that got revived from a comment from August 6.
Measure J is a process – not an outcome. When you have free elections, that means that you have to accept the fact that your preferred candidate or policy outcome will lose. As I argued on August 6, “I support the democratic process even when/ though it doesn’t always produce the outcomes I prefer.”
A good response was made by another commenter yesterday:
“We need to have a balanced democratic process. Having citizens vote on every single decision, e.g., where to put a stop sign, would basically bring our society to a standstill. We also have an electorate that can’t be informed about every issue. Instead, we’ve delegated decision making through a democratic republic and in order to keep our representatives accountable we need to fully delegate responsibility to them. We undermine one democratic institution (government officials) by being overly reliant on another (direct decision making through initiatives/referendums). We’ve seen this problem at the state level–it isn’t unique to Davis. Democracy is much more complicated than simply having a vote. I suggest that you reexamine your position on whether Measure J created a process that leads to good democratic governance. I submit that it has been counterproductive at a broader level.”
I agree with a number of points raised by this comment.
As I noted earlier, one problem that I see with housing is that the pendulum swung too far in the direction that precluded new housing. While you can argue Measure J is the most extreme of these swings, it is not alone and that’s why it is a statewide and indeed, nationwide housing shortage, not just a California problem.
It’s not just that voters are not always informed on every issue, it is that the people who vote by and large are more likely to own rather than rent – even in places like Davis where the majority of residents are in fact voters. Moreover, there are constituencies locked out of the process entirely because they can’t afford to live here.
We are at the point where Measure J has made it difficult if not impossible to meet our state housing requirements. There could be consequences down the line for that.
The residents of Davis resoundingly voted in 2020 to extend Measure J until 2030. I lamented at the time a number of things including the lack of community discussion on this issue, the lack of opposition to Measure J, and as it turns out, the decision by the voters was made without the knowledge of all of the potential consequences.
Some of course – a very small minority at this point – would like to end Measure altogether. The voting numbers alone make that exceedingly unlikely. Far more likely would be state intervention – but while that is more likely than voter action, it is unclear how likely that actually is.
There is of course another possibility. One that I have suggested a number of times – look at modifications to the way we do land use. If Measure J is our protection against sprawl, the safeguard of Davis becoming like countless other fast growth cities in the valley, but Measure J has simply swung the pendulum to the point where we cannot build reasonable amounts of housing, then perhaps we could tweak it.
In 2020, the rallying call of slow growthers was to pass Measure J extension as written with only small technical changes. Ironically those strong supporters of Measure J, may ultimately prove to be its undoing.
We will see what happens over the next year or so. I would still favor a moderate policy that allows us to build the housing we need while still providing a brake against endless growth on the farmland. We will see if that is a possibility.