My View: The Politics of a Measure J Amendment

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – This week Tim Keller once again had a great op-ed in the Vanguard: “Lessons from Testing the Measure J Amendment at the Village Farms Site.”

This led to a lot of discussions behind the scenes.  The first question was how likely is it that the council would put a Measure J exemption on the ballot.

The idea that they would is not coming out of thin air.  For one thing, a number of councilmembers have at least broached the topic in public discussions.  But the most concrete came from the Draft of the Third Housing Element where the city indicated the intent to place a Measure J exemption on the ballot in November 2024 but “no later than November 2026.”

The city said it intends: “Amend language already in Measure J/R/D that exempts from its public vote requirements projects that provide affordable housing or facilities needed for city services, or other changes to city ordinances that would help create affordable housing. Any change to Measure J/R/D/ would require a public vote.”

A reasonable question is: how likely are they to go forward with this?

To get a sense of that, let’s model briefly how this is likely to play out.

Remember that the council has already stated that their priority is a tax measure—and given the state’s budget deficit, that is probably going to take on new urgency.  Remember as well that if they put it on the ballot for November, the seats of Josh Chapman, Donna Neville and Will Arnold will be up.

It is widely expected that Arnold will not seek a third term—but, then again, he has not publicly announced that and it was widely expected that he would not seek a second term, and here we are.

We also know that the moment an item on a Measure J exemption is on the agenda, the Eileen Samitz’s of the community will assemble in overdrive, convincing every voter over the age of 60 to both email and come to the council meeting to argue that Measure J should remain as written, with only technical changes.

It seems likely then that any effort to even consider amending Measure J is going to have to overcome a solid obstacle of some 200 people who are dead set against even proposing the change.

Given that expected opposition and the timing of a ballot measure to coincide with reelection campaigns, it will be tempting and easy to attempt to put the issue off until 2026.

For the first 24 years of Measure J’s existence that threat probably would have meant checkmate for any attempt to try to modify Measure J.  But this is now a multi-level chess game and the threat of a first move may not be nearly as decisive as before.

First of all there are the counter moves.

Unlike ever before there are groups like D-CAN and other groups that are organized and can push back against opposition to change.  These groups may not be able to win at the council meeting level, but they have the potential to at least level the playing field.

Given where Tim Keller ultimately wants to go with the Measure J amendment, it might be better to go the petition route anyway.  It would take a lot of work to mobilize, but it is the surest way to bypass political fears.

But there is also the longer game.  It seems clear that the strategy of Samitz, for example, is to block any Measure J amendments, block Village Farms, and then hope that the passage of another Measure J vote will enough of a pressure release to avoid systemic implosion.

The problem with that approach is that the math will not work.

First of all, it is very clear that the city is going to need to go peripheral as soon as possible to meet state housing requirements.

Second, one peripheral project is not going to meet state housing requirements, particularly at the affordable housing level.

Third, if the first moves to block a housing project succeed and block any attempt at reforming Measure J, you might never get to step three.

A big factor here is at what point is an outside entity going to jump into the game.  On the one hand, you have HCD backed up by the Governor and Attorney General Rob Bonta.  On the other you have YIMBY Law that is increasingly showing it wants to be a player on the housing scene and we have already seen the threats from Legal Services who have directly questioned whether Measure J represents an impenetrable barrier to low income housing.

If the first two dominoes fall, the chances are they won’t wait for a third.

For a long time, the local citizens have taken solace from the lack of size and importance of Davis.  But Davis is uniquely situated just 15 minutes from the capital and thus a lot of people who work in Sacramento actually live in Davis.  That gives Davis an outsized presence.

But even aside from that point, we have seen the state filing against places like La Cañada and Huntington Beach, and YIMBY Law filing against Millbrae.

In this climate, counting on the relative size to save Measure J is a fool’s errand.  And at the end of the day, something is going to have to give to make the math work.  Opponents of housing keep counting on the state fading away, but, if anything, the opposite is happening.

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.

Related posts

1 Comment

  1. Tim Keller

    A few thoughts:

    First, this idea started through my prior series of articles looking for some of the fundamental truths behind our housing debate; what the supply and demand situation really was, what university growth really meant for the community, and what the community itself really valued in terms of development issues.

    I wont summarize that series of articles here, but I do want to say that we arrived at this “lets modify measure J” approach empirically – it simply emerged as the best-fit option that checked the most boxes for the most people, for the city, the state, the university, our economy… ALL of that.

    This was not intended to be a political thing, it was supposed to be a process which helped us discover a best-fit policy alternative.

    Second:  Now that we have gotten to the discussion of the politics of the idea I think there are a couple of things that should be mentioned about the “people” part of the consideration that went into all of this.

    I have observed a range of opinions held by people around the topic of growth:

    – ” I dont want Davis to become…X ”
    –  “We need to protect farmland”
    – ” I dislike urban sprawl ”
    – “The Traffic is going to be ‘horrible’ ”
    – “Im not against growth but the process for this development was flawed”. – A procedural justice argument
    – “I distrust of developers or the council”
    -“Single family housing is irresponsible environmentally, and economically”

    We arrived at this particular proposal because it listens to AND responds to THESE concerns to the greatest extent possible.

    Now, if you are part of the group that wants Davis to simply not change from the way it was when you got here, or if your opposition is literaly that you simply dont want the field near YOUR house to be developed, then I cant help you.

    But the rest of these sentiments ARE adressed by this proposal:
    –  It conserves farmland,
    –  It minimizes traffic impacts,
    –  It prevents endless urban sprawl like we have seen elsewhere
    –  It preserves the ability to down-vote projects we dont like.

    To no small extent, being against the amendment of measure J is being FOR sprawl, FOR developer-led planning that can only ever give us dis-jointed single family projects etc.    It is not the typical “pro-growth” campaign you might see coming from a developer, in fact the developers that I have talked to as part of this process are at best lukewarm about it.

    Instead this proposal was crafted specifically to check the most boxes for the most people, (voters that is).   And I think it does that.

    Now David, you have assumed that Eileen and company are going to rage against that proposal.   I have not headed her comment on this one way or the other, but if the arguments she has made in criticism of the Village farms are how she really feels, then I would think that she would be a big fan of what I wrote this week:

    Under this most recent proposal, we are shrinking the footprint of the project to only occupy the lower 1/3 which solves her groundwater objection ( and the vernal pool objection others have made) and we are aggressively providing transit to minimize traffic impact – a transit line that will serve not just the project but the nearby neighborhoods.  Isnt that what she wants?   I do remember her asking for a “reduced footprint version” of the plan as part of the EIR scoping process… and that is exactly what this latest evolution is.   For all we know, she might be a big fan of this idea.

    Of course, the cynic in all of us is saying  that “business as usual” will proceed is probably correct, but I would point out that if it is,  it will only be a sub-set of the people who are usually against development that will be turning out to oppose this – the ones that are the most driven by anti-change and anti-change-near-me sentiments.    The rest of the voters, those who are motivated by concerns over sprawl, over planning and process, over environmentalism, and traffic concerns, if they understand what exactly is being done here.. they will be FOR it.

    I think the amendment of measure J ticks the most boxes for the most people possible.   I think it will be popular with the voters, I think our council will understand the wisdom of it, and support it, if not for its own merits but because it will be popular, and because they will want to be on the right side of the issue.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for