By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – Perhaps the most interesting item on the agenda is the Long Range Growth Subcommittee status report. The item lays out a possible path forwar—and on the surface it makes a good deal of sense.
On the one hand: “Concurrently, the City has been approached by multiple developers wishing to pursue review of housing applications on the periphery, and all desiring a November, 2024 ballot measure under Measure J/R/D.”
On the other hand, “To review any given peripheral development proposal requires significant bandwidth of staff, consultants, commissions, and the community.”
And as the city acknowledges, they are currently “short-staffed” with two planning positions vacant as they currently recruit for new staff in the Community Development Department.
In short, “To review one peripheral development proposal would require an aggressive review schedule and strict adherence to timelines in order to provide the ability for the City Council to take action by no later than end of June, 2024.”
Staff concludes: “While reviewing one peripheral proposal may be feasible with contract resources, review of multiple peripheral development proposals concurrently would quickly exceed staff bandwidth capacity, would exceed city commission capacity, and could be perceived by the community as putting undue burden on their capacity to adequately track multiple proposals.”
Moreover, from a practical political standpoint, having two land use measures on a ballot at the same time likely means that both would lose. Consider that only a small percentage of would-be supporters are likely to support both, a higher percentage would pick one or the other, splitting the vote and, given the razor thin margins in Davis to project approval by the voters, anything that splits the vote is likely to cause both measures to go down to defeat.
Thus I believe, from both a staffing and community perspective, having just one measure on the November 2024 ballot makes the most sense.
But there is a problem with this line of thinking.
If you have four projects, are you going to push some of the voting out until 2026, 2028, or even 2030 depending on bandwidth and willingness to approve the projects?
That of course assumes that these are the only four peripheral projects that might come forward over the next planning period.
One possible problem is that by delaying the processing of these projects potentially three to even seven years, you might run afoul with state law. Owners of property who put forward a project have an expectation that their proposals will be considered and if necessary adjudicated in a timely fashion.
If you start lining up projects for consideration for years to come, there is a potential at least that one or more of the developers will sue the city.
I have pointed out that Measure J has never actually been tested head on in the courts as to whether a required voter approval process is constitutional.
At the same time the fact that most developers locally have more than one project at stake over their lifetime may preclude an individual developer from filing a lawsuit—fearing that it would make future projects more difficult to gain approval.
A more serious threat may be the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). If the state sees city ordinances like Measure J as a significant barrier for the city’s ability to complete its fair housing share—specifically, of course, affordable housing, the state could step in.
The state has already shown it will be extremely aggressive in filing suits against cities that are seen to be dragging its feet or outright blocking housing.
A further complication is third parties have stepped in to sue as well. We have seen in Northern California YIMBY groups sue various state entities for non-compliance with state housing law.
Last fall, we saw nonprofits aiming to combat California’s “housing access and affordability crisis,” suing various cities as well for failing “to adopt valid housing elements.”
Amid all of the push to address the housing crisis, Davis remains a poster child for slow growth, development avoidance policies.
In the last several months, conversations I have had suggest that HCD is well aware of Davis and its anti-housing policies—indeed, a number of people who work for HCD in fact live in Davis—and there does seem to be some inclination to step in.
When that would happen remains unclear. The city expects that its current Housing Element will gain approval. That could take them off the clock this cycle.
But when I talked to City Manager Mike Webb nearly a year ago back in June 2022, he acknowledged that it will be very difficult for the city to infill its way into compliance for its Affordable Housing allotment.
That’s a huge reason why we have finally heard talk from councilmembers about looking into tweaks to Measure J.
But if Measure J causes projects with potentially hundreds if not thousands of affordable units to be delayed, backed up, and ultimately defeated, will HCD or even the Attorney General step in to start challenging Measure J?
I don’t know the answer to that. But in a worst-case scenario, that is a potential path forward.
I think Davis has put itself into a bind here not just with Measure J, but with its delay in initiating a General Plan update.
The subcommittee is calling for a “proposed framework to engage the community in visioning for future housing needs and peripheral growth expectations as a second stage (Downtown Plan was the first stage) of the General Plan update.”
The goal is, “The interim criteria would serve as a bridge and provide guidance for consideration of such proposals until such time that an updated General Plan is crafted and adopted.”
A strong General Plan could give the city multiple paths forward to compliance even with Measure J. But if the community and certain activists take the view that they should oppose all tweaks, all proposed projects, I think it becomes likely that the state or the courts or both could step in to force some change.
That’s why I think the conversations tonight are so critical to the future of Davis—they will lay the groundwork for future conversations and likely future actions.