Commentary: What Could Council Do about Measure J?

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Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Any reasonable accounting for the math suggests that the city will not be able to meet its next RHNA cycle obligations—particularly on the affordable housing side—without significant peripheral housing.

Even a fairly optimistic view as expressed by Judy Corbett last month includes Village Farms (a Measure J proposal) as an infill project—and the math doesn’t seem to add up when you consider a lot of the proposals listed there have either already been counted or are unlikely to add significant affordable housing.

Can the city council count on the voters to approve sufficient housing via Measure J?  The history there suggests that’s a tough ask.  There have been seven such votes since 2005, and only two have passed.  Anything with significant traffic impacts have been met with a good deal of skepticism from the voters.

So what are the options…

Do nothing – I would argue this probably is not viable in terms of successfully rezoning land for housing, but ironically it might be the most likely scenario.  If the city council changes nothing, then they are taking it out of their own hands.  The pending projects will go to the voters, and then it remains to be seen whether the voters will approve it.  Failing that, it would force the state or the courts to step in to determine whether Measure J is a barrier to the building of housing and thus in violation of a variety of different state laws.

Eliminate Measure J – There is still a segment of the community that opposes Measure J and would favor removing it.  The problem with this approach is that that sector of the population is shrinking.  In 2000, it was a relatively narrow victory for Measure J, but by 2020, it was renewed with 83 percent of the vote.  A direct vote doesn’t seem likely to remove Measure J in the foreseeable future.  The most likely path to elimination would be either the state or a local citizen or developer filing a legal action that Measure J violates State Law.

Then there are a variety of Measure J revisions that could be proposed

Affordable Housing Exemption – This is one that the council has floated at various times.  Currently there is an Exemption for 100 percent affordable housing projects.  And while this has been offered up by defenders of the status quo, it is worth noting one key number: zero.  That’s the number of 100 percent affordable projects that have been even proposed in the last nearly 25 years.  With no RDA that doesn’t seem like a viable option.

What about changing that exemption to 40 percent?  That has been at least informally floated.  Would that produce any projects?  Would the voters support it?

There is a segment of voters who have argued repeatedly that we already have an exemption for affordable housing and we should leave Measure J as written.  What we don’t know is whether a majority of voters feel that way.

The other key question is whether that’s enough.  The logic here is that by reducing uncertainty it would incentivize a much larger affordable component and, with large peripheral projects, creating land dedication sites are relatively easy ways to generate large amounts of affordable housing.

Rubric Qualified Exemption – Another suggestion has been to create a refined rubric as proposed by the council this spring, and then projects that achieve a certain level of certification would gain exemption.  This is a variant of the affordable housing exemption, except it might extend to environmental or transportation goals as well.

Urban Limit Line – Tim Keller recently proposed the suggestion of using or extending a urban limit line as a work-around for Measure J.  Basically, Measure J acts as a de facto urban limit line—it makes the line the current city boundaries and in order to rezone additional land, it requires voter approval.  Tim Keller and others have proposed basically extending that line outward, so that land within the boundary would be subject to normal land use approvals and then to extend the line would require a vote.

Pre-approval – Similar in concept, I have pointed out that you can basically use pre-approvals to designate land as already approved for planning purposes.  The advantage of this approach is that it would not require a Measure J amendment, it would only require the voters to approve certain land for development.  The advantage with that is that the developers would not have to expend time and money to develop a proposal, only to have it be rejected.  The disadvantage is that without the kind of specificity there is a good chance the voters wouldn’t approve the project.

So where does that leave us?

I think there is no chance that the voters will vote to eliminate Measure J.  Would they vote to amend it?  Possibly, but I think we’ll quickly see in the comments opposition to any sort of amendment.  There is at least a chance the council will attempt to do something and there is also a chance that citizens put up their own initiative.

I still think the most likely outcome is going to be status quo and then it will be up to the state and the courts eventually to decide what to do—unless of course the voters show a willingness to approve some of these projects.

Stay tuned.

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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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28 thoughts on “Commentary: What Could Council Do about Measure J?”

  1. Tim Keller

    While I would love to take credit for the urban limit line idea.  It was actually Robb Davis who first proposed it.  All I did was do the math to see if it pencils out ( and it does )

    That said housing is a complicated issue which impacts finances, environment and the fabric of our society.  We cant just look at it from one of these lenses: we need to look at the issues altogether in a wholistic (and hopefully balanced )sort of way.

    I discussed this with some others recently, and the concept we have in mind is crafting a narrow exception to measure J that checks ALL of the boxes for what we really want out of housing:

    1) Housing density averaging 20 du/ acre.    This makes the project more affordable for residents, for  at least twice as  sustainable environmentally, and net positive for the city economically…

    2) Compliance with a city-drawn transit and bike connectivity master plan.  Makes sure that if the properties are developed one at a time, they still all “line up”and prioritize bike and transit use over driving

    3) Parking maximums.  Limiting the number of parking spots avaliable while simuiltaneously providing for bike and transit makes the degelopment much more useful to the local workforce and less useful to commuters, AND it means that this growth of the city does not mean growth in traffic and parking issues.

    4) Percent Land dedication for Low-income housing.   Self explanatory, but we need to be careful with defining what the percentage is.   Because % affordable ‘units’ metric we are used to ignores the density of the development, and when we start talking higher baseline density, the “ask” for land dedication changes quite a bit… I can elaborate if there is interest.

    5) There may be other issues we want to add to this list!!!  Green building standards maybe?  Maybe Leed Silver / gold as a minimum?  That would push up costs to be sure, but it is worth discussing.

    6) All of these standards would ONLY apply to properties within the geographical boundaries that we designate as an urban limit line.

    ——-

    The right path for us is not going to be choosing whether we want affordability, OR environmental sustainability, OR transit connectivity… the right path is to use a measure J exemption to incentivize these private developers to develop their properties according to OUR master plan to meet ALL of our environmental / economic / social standards.

    Measure J would remain in place, and if developers really wanted to do what THEY wanted with their property, they still have the measure J process to try to convince voters that they have a better idea worth approving.

    But creating this measure J exception would allow us to incentivize developers to come to the city with sustainable, master planned projects that reflect what WE want out of housing, not what THEY think is simple or profitable, and they would be willing to do this because it removes the uncertainty of a measure J vote.

    (That said, even for projects that check all of our boxes, I still think that review and approval by the planning department and council is STILL a good idea, especially in terms of deciding how much to build and on what timeline, but for the developer this is still a much more reliable pathway that they would likely welcome)

    PS:  Notice I didnt include the rubric in this list… LEED-ND is not a planning tool.  The rubric will not get us bike paths that efficiently get us downtown, or master plan our transit system, or get us enough housing to make our limit line work.. its good for analysis and conversation… it cant drive the bus it can just tell us if the bus we are on is going in a good direction.

     

  2. Richard McCann

    I think a combined urban limit line with a refined rubric is the best solution. That rubric would have to be approved by voters to keep a large degree of local control, just not project by project. The additional twist is that if a project doesn’t meet the rubric, it must go through a Measure J/R/D vote to maintain leverage on developers to comply to gain the easiest path forward.

    On preapproval, I don’t know how we would identify parcels. Property owners need to be willing to accept preapproval (and may not be interested anyway), and voters would face even more uncertainty about what might be built on a parcel than already occurs. One of the vulnerabilities of DiSC was the uncertainty about the pace and type of development and lack of committed potential tenants. And if a parcel is rejected by the voters, it will be more difficult to gain future approval.

  3. Ron Oertel

    Rubric

    Apparently, David has learned a new word.

    I still think the most likely outcome is going to be status quo and then it will be up to the state and the courts eventually to decide what to do—unless of course the voters show a willingness to approve some of these projects.

    That’s what we call “blackmail”, and that Davis’ city officials are more than happy to go along with that. And why not, given that they have the same goals as state officials.

    Regardless, none of these proposals on their own are going to address future RHNA targets.

    The targets themselves are going to fail (statewide) for the current round, let alone future rounds. The state itself does not have the ability to force local planning in the manner that they’re “requiring” – and address all of the impacts it creates across the entire state. They are in over their heads, regarding this. They can sue cities all they want, and the buildings still won’t get built. And if they push hard enough, resistance will increase – not lessen.

    No other city in the entire state is “worrying” about future RHNA targets, at this point.  No other city in the entire state is planning to increase sprawl, as a result of future RHNA targets.

    No city along the coast is planning to pursue sprawl at all, in regard to these targets.  And yet, those cities are the focus of the state’s targets.

    What you’re seeing on the Vanguard is an attempt to “create” concern, to justify sprawl.  In this case, an attempt at blackmail in regard to proposals which won’t even address future RHNA targets.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Apparently, David has learned a new word.”

      Well the city council used the term when they discussed the long range growth planning – I simply used the term they adopted.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          Well it was used about 50 times over two weeks to the point where the council was joking that it was “rubric” not “Rubix” as in “cube.”

        2. Ron Oertel

          Well, they probably shouldn’t use that word on any ballot argument, if they actually attempt to undermine Measure J.

          Doing so might be an even bigger mistake than the one Dan Carson made, regarding the result.

          Most voters aren’t paying that close of attention to what the council said during the last two weeks. Nor are they going to voting for a “rubric” to replace Measure J – cube, or otherwise.

  4. Ron Oertel

    What about changing that exemption to 40 percent?  That has been at least informally floated.  Would that produce any projects?  Would the voters support it?

    They could try that right now, without changing Measure J.

    Regardless, it would be decades (not just “years”) before that amount of Affordable housing would be built – land dedication, or not.

    If anything, “competition” for limited Affordable funds has drastically increased (statewide), as a result of the state’s targets.  San Francisco alone would “suck up” about $18 billion of those funds to meet its current round of “targets”.

    And keep in mind that we’re talking about a state which has been LOSING population – especially in cities that are the focus of RHNA targets.

    Does anyone else see a “problem”, here – regarding feasibility of the state’s targets? Or does that have to be spelled-out even more-clearly than it already is?

      1. Ron Oertel

        Sure they can.  They (meaning a developer) can propose whatever percentage of Affordable housing they want to propose – by percentage of land, percentage of units, or some other measure.

        They could also propose a development that would meet ALL of the future RHNA targets, if they knew what those targets would be. They might even be able to make a reasonable “guess” regarding that.

  5. Ron Oertel

    I still think the most likely outcome is going to be status quo and then it will be up to the state and the courts eventually to decide what to do—unless of course the voters show a willingness to approve some of these projects.

    Following up on this, it seems to me that voters opposed to Measure J should vote “no” on any/all peripheral proposals, to ensure Measure J’s ultimate destruction.  Or at least, that’s the argument presented via this citation.

    (Of course, this also assumes that any of these proposals address future RHNA targets in the first place.  If they don’t, then approving them won’t prevent Measure J’s destruction, anyway – according to the argument presented.)

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Following up on this, it seems to me that voters opposed to Measure J should vote “no” on any/all peripheral proposals, to ensure Measure J’s ultimate destruction. Or at least, that’s the argument presented via this citation.”

      That seems rather convoluted.

      1. Ron Oertel

        It is “convoluted”.

        But again, anyone who wants to undermine Measure J should vote “no” on any peripheral proposal, according to the argument presented.

        So for any of those folks, they’ll only have themselves to blame, if they vote “yes” on any proposal.

        1. David Greenwald Post author

          First of all, I take exception to the notion that modifications to Measure J is “undermining” it. And second, I would prefer housing – if we can get it approved.

        2. Ron Oertel

          And second, I would prefer housing – if we can get it approved.

          For someone like you (who is opposed to Measure J), you might want to vote “no” on these proposals so that your longer-term goal is achieved.  (According to your own argument.)

          Sometimes, you have to sacrifice “short-term” goals for longer-term goals.

        3. Ron Oertel

          I see that as playing games.

          If that’s how you view it, your own article is “playing games”.

          I’m not making this suggestion entirely in jest. It’s a direct result of what you’re claiming, in your own article.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            My article put forward possible paths forward including the status quo.

  6. Don Shor

    There are at least two development teams that feel their projects are ready to go before the voters.

    Put them on the ballot. Don’t bother trying to “modify” Measure J. That’s likely to fail and just set the whole development process back by at least a couple of election cycles.

    If the voters agree with the folks on this blog who want more of this, less of that, no houses more than X dollars, higher percentage of varying forms of affordability, more parking, less parking, etc., then they’ll send them back to the drawing board. That is, if the voters want to micromanage the development process the way commenters here want to micromanage it, then the projects will get rejected.

    My impression is that the nature of the Davis electorate has changed. I think there is more support for development proposals than there was 15 – 20 years ago. I think people are likely ready to approve a normal housing subdivision, that at least one of the proposals is likely to pass easily and the second one could pass albeit likely more narrowly.

    None of that will make the micromanagers, urban planners, slow-growth folks, and social justice advocates happy. But I don’t think even collectively that those folks will prevail any more. The voters have approved senior housing and student housing. I’m guessing they’ll probably approve everyone-else housing too if it has enough of the bells and whistles that Davis residents seem to want. These are local developers. They know what Davis voters and homebuyers want.

    Before it gets to the ballot, the development groups are likely to refine their proposals in response to public input. The council can certainly try to squeeze every civic benefit out of them. But ultimately, everything that is being described from the rubric to the debates about exemptions and exceptions and so forth — all of that? Just another recipe for delay.

     

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “My impression is that the nature of the Davis electorate has changed.”

      To some extent that seems true, but it also hasn’t seem to translate into some sort of policy difference.

    2. Tim Keller

      Put them on the ballot. Don’t bother trying to “modify” Measure J. That’s likely to fail and just set the whole development process back by at least a couple of election cycles.

      I disagree.

      Best case:  Reform wins in 2024 and developers get to decide if they want to change their plans to comply with the new standard or proceed with their intended measure J campaign.

      Worst case:  Reform fails in 2024 and the population has just spent the last election cycle debating our growth policy, how broken it is and the consequences thereof, how important it is that we pass something else measure J will be overturned by the state…  I think that would boost the chances of a measure J project subsequently passing.

      I think the davis voters are smart.    They know sprawl is harmful, they know master planning is good, they understand that everyone driving everywhere is a broken way to plan a city.   They like sustainable planning…  They distrust the concept of our city planning being done by developers…   I don’t think the issue is a loser at all,

      Davis is a town that chose the bike for its symbol.  But was entirely built around the automobile.  We need to fix that.   If there is ANY town in california that could proactivley decide that it was time to reject car-centric sprawl and embrace a form of urbanism that puts sustainability, biking and transit at the forefront it would be Davis

      1. Ron Oertel

        I think the davis voters are smart.    They know sprawl is harmful, they know master planning is good, they understand that everyone driving everywhere is a broken way to plan a city.   They like sustainable planning…  They distrust the concept of our city planning being done by developers…   I don’t think the issue is a loser at all,

        Davis is a town that chose the bike for its symbol.  But was entirely built around the automobile.  We need to fix that.   If there is ANY town in california that could proactivley decide that it was time to reject car-centric sprawl and embrace a form of urbanism that puts sustainability, biking and transit at the forefront it would be Davis…

        This part of your comment is actually pretty-impressive.

         

      2. David Greenwald Post author

        It’s probably worth noting that the one time Measure J was actually contested, it was relatively close and the voters have never had the opportunity to even ponder alternatives. So we have never had this debate or discussion in the community.

        1. Ron Oertel

          So we have never had this debate or discussion in the community.

          You’ve been trying to “have this debate” ever since I’ve been reading the Vanguard.

          And as usual, you haven’t even defined the “problem”.

          Again, if you don’t like Measure J, vote against all of the proposals (to ensure its ultimate destruction, according to what you’re claiming in this article).  I support you doing so, for what that’s worth.

          Sounds like you’ll have your first opportunity to vote “no” regarding the 400-acre Covell Village “redux”. Then, vote “no” regarding Shriner’s, after that.

          At which point, you and others can start trying to get Rob Bonta to overturn Measure J, using those two failures as “ammunition”. They don’t have to “know” that you voted against those proposals, as well.

          How’s that for a plan? Isn’t that a lot easier than fighting “for” these proposals, one-at-a-time?

          As already noted, you have to adopt a long-term view, regarding your goals.

  7. Walter Shwe

    The only hope for people trying to buy a new home in today’s broken housing market
    Prospective homebuyers — especially those trying to purchase a home for the first time — are trapped. People who already own a home aren’t selling, mortgage rates are staying high, and competition for the few homes on the market remains stiff. Finding a warm place to lay your head in the middle of the housing market’s Ice Age is proving difficult

    https://www.businessinsider.com/house-construction-building-boom-last-hope-new-homebuyers-housing-market-2023-7?amp

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