Commentary: In a Battle of Developer v. the City, We All Lose

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – I maintain that the single most disastrous thing to happen to housing in Davis was the Cannery.  Not because the Cannery was a bad project, and that didn’t really address our housing needs—both of which in my opinion are true.

But rather because the developers have kept coming back to the city time and time again for alterations to the development agreement.  That has served anti-housing forces extremely well because it is a reminder that developers cannot be trusted to adhere to their commitments (and thus everything needs to be in the project baseline features) and the city council cannot be trusted to make sure that developers keep their commitments (and thus everything needs to be in the project baseline features).

This is a reminder that these things have consequences down the line—already the city and developers are not well trusted in many circles, and every time a developer comes back to ask for more, it continues to undermine the process and that trust.

That leads me to the conflict between David Taormino and the City of Davis.

The good news is that in 2022, 22 years after Davis Voters approved Measure J in 2000, the first ever Measure J project, Bretton Woods (passed as WDAAC, West Davis Active Adult Community) is under construction.

In an op-ed last week, Taormino mused, “The actual election process was easy compared to finalizing the details with Davis staff. We still have half-a-dozen important and extremely costly imposed conditions that impact costs to homebuyers.”

Easy for him to say, as his is one of only two Measure J projects to even get past the voters.  Five of the seven Measure J votes have now been unsuccessful.

Taormino writes, “The actual election process was easy compared to finalizing the details with Davis staff. We still have half-a-dozen important and extremely costly imposed conditions that impact costs to homebuyers.”

Taormino continues that “two Davis staffers are demanding the two bigger, better, fancier, customized 110-foot-long tunnels paralleling Covell Boulevard near Risling Drive, and two more in our Bretton Woods Channel to accommodate critters.”

Additionally, he said, “the same two city staffers also demand the addition of an 18-inch wide, hand-made, 110-foot-long, wooden boardwalk roughly half-way up the 4-foot-tall tunnel walls so that critters who are uncomfortable with wet feet, (mice, rats and other rodents), are provided an inviting and comforting passage into the long, dark tunnels. No expense spared, especially since it’s paid by Bretton Woods’ homebuyers.”

The city disagrees.

They note that the Planning Commission in November 2020 “approved the Bretton Woods tentative subdivision map during a public hearing and subject to certain conditions of approval.”

Among those conditions “were requirements for specific pathway materials and widths, a wildlife crossing shelf/ledge and natural bottom for a culvert crossing, certain streets in the project to be maintained by the Homeowner’s Association instead of the City, and a requirement to use native plant materials.”

More importantly, they note, Taormino “had the opportunity to appeal the project to the City Council, which would have allowed the applicant the opportunity to contest conditions of approval, but no appeal was made.”

Instead, nearly two years after this approval, Taormino has filed an application to modify the project requirements and conditions.

I understand where both sides are coming from here.  The developer sees an added cost, the city sees the developer complaining about something they could have appealed two years ago.

What I see is another problem for those of us who just want to find ways to reasonably build housing in this community.

The community trust factor right now is pretty low.  Developer in Davis is analogous to a proverbial four-letter word and, frankly, city staff is not much better.  So when developers and city staff feud in cases like this, we all lose.  At least all of us who actually want to see housing built in this community.

I’m supportive of a streamlined Measure J process.  WDAAC wasn’t quite a preapproval, but I actually think Taormino did the right thing by getting a general approval for the project first, and then ironing out the details later.

The problem is that the community trust factor comes into play when members of the community now see the developer complaining about details that they could have hashed out in real time in late 2020 rather than firing off an op-ed and accusing the city of imposing conditions (conditions that they themselves could have appealed in real time).

This is just going to become another Cannery type situation, where every time the development agreement comes back to the Planning Commission or Council.

I get it—the cost of these tunnels is not cheap at $200,000.  But as he himself points out, it’s also not really a huge added cost when you consider the overall cost of housing.

Writes Taormino, “To ‘critter customize’ these tunnels will cost each senior home buyer in Bretton Woods somewhere around $600 per home. While not a ‘princely sum,’ it is only one of a dozen unnecessary costs heaped on Bretton Woods by city staff.”

But there is another side to this—each time Taormino raises these points they are burning currency in the community.  Currency with the city staff and more importantly currency for the voters.

One of the advantages of a local developer is that these projects are never a one-off deal.  Taormino is already looking at another project that would have to go before the voters.

The danger is that Taormino could win this round but lose the war.  And by losing the war, I mean making the next project less likely to gain voter approval.  Not just for him, but for all developers.  If that happens, everyone who cares about the community having sufficient housing is a loser.

We are in a housing crisis in a community where approving new housing is difficult, particularly via a Measure J vote—we don’t have to make the situation more difficult.

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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9 Comments

  1. Ron Glick

    “Writes Taormino, “To “critter customize” these tunnels will cost each senior home buyer in Bretton Woods somewhere around $600 per home.”

    Only if he can pass the cost through to the buyers. Otherwise it’s money out of his pocket and squeezes his margins.

  2. Dave Hart

    At the same time, surely there must be a less expensive alternative to the tunnels as proposed by city staff.  I bet someone out there could come up with a $100,000 alternative that works just as well for the critters.  This would not be the first time city staff has over-designed an amenity.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I’d suggest the installation of an unwanted zip line for their use. Maybe put a little basket on it, for those unable to hang on.

      Solve two problems, simultaneously. 🙂

  3. Walter Shwe

    Developers that can’t make a sufficient profits will just skip Davis all together, especially since they have to go through the unnecessarily onerous Measure J process.

    1. Mark West

      “Developers that can’t make a sufficient profits will just skip Davis all together…”

      The Terner Center at UC Berkeley published a study a few years ago comparing cities around the State in an effort to determine why some places are more successful with development projects (I have posted to the study before, not going to bother doing it again). Cost of development was not considered the deciding factor, as some of the most favored cities were also the most expensive to operate in. What was determined to be the more important factors were the degree of uncertainty and risk.

      The most successful cities had their requirements and costs posted upfront, such that a developer could fairly accurately calculate their costs by looking at the published list of requirements before submitting a proposal. Places like Davis do the opposite, with many of the project specific requirements and costs being hidden until the proposal is well along, whether it is new requirements demanded by Staff, or worse still, demands by City Council members looking to negotiate changes or additional fees from the dais prior to approval. The issues surrounding Measure J are in addition to these problems, which is why Davis had such a poor reputation for business long before Measure J was enacted.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The most successful cities 

        I assume that “success” refers to continued sprawl. If so, there’s lots of “successful” cities throughout the region and beyond.

        such that a developer could fairly accurately calculate their costs by looking at the published list of requirements before submitting a proposal.

        Seems to me that the DiSC developers “voluntarily” added to their own costs by initiating a legal action against opponents (via Dan Carson), and losing (both legally, and politically).

        1. Mark West

          “I assume that “success” refers to continued sprawl.”

          You assume wrong. Successful Cities in this context are those that get the type and quality of development that they are looking for. When you receive multiple quality proposals you are able to select the ones that meet the City’s needs best.

  4. Alan Hirsch

    Can we Trust Taormino?

    I recall Mr Taormino strategically cut down trees on his property after J/R Passed but before the property was officially annexed to city to avoid mitigation the impact of that cutting.

    See this article by Leader of Tree Davis on the preemptive tree cutting.  https://www.davisenterprise.com/forum/opinion-columns/commentary-what-happened-to-the-wdaac-trees/     titled:  What happened to the WDAAC trees?

    He also promised to fully endow a private non-profit foundation to take care of a new oak tree arboretum along the bike path on this development. but has instead has saddled that cost of the future future resident of that development… homeowners who don’t exist to object to this burden shifting.

    I and 98%  people in Davis won’t go into the details of city staff vs Taormino on the need for these wildlife connectors he is objective too.

    But certainly one can see Mr. Taormino has a history of undoing promises when it come to environmental features of his project.

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