Monday Morning Thoughts: First Key Issue About to Drop – Measure J Exemption

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

It may be one of the most important issues facing the Davis City Council this year—whether to put a Measure J exemption on the ballot for November.  And of course what that would look like.

It will be interesting to see if the council even decides to put the matter up for a vote.  There will be strong opposition to even calling the question.  The last two renewals saw a strong call for the council to put Measure J back on the ballot, as is, with only minor technical modifications.

Some opponents argue, “Contrary to the misinformation in this article, Measure J does not need to be ‘fixed.’”  They add, that Measure J already has an existing exemption: “It already has an exemption for 5 acres per year of land for affordable housing which, therefore, would not need a Measure J vote for development. But Measure J also includes language allowing for additional land to be exempted for affordable housing if needed.”

However, in 25 years, not one project has come forward that would qualify for a Measure J exemption.

The level of opposition to even allowing the voters to consider a Measure J exemption—let alone get one passed—figures to be just one hurdle that the council would face.

If they do decide to put a Measure J exemption on the ballot they have a least three potential routes to take it.

Perhaps the most likely would be a high affordable project—that is sufficiently a lower barrier than the current 100 percent affordable.

One possibility would be 40 percent affordable.  Another is perhaps as low as 25 percent affordable.  The trick will be to set the bar high enough to gain voter support but low enough that something could actually be proposed and built.

I do think there is considerably more leeway here on the development side, because having a high affordable project would simply mean setting aside enough in a land dedication that enough units could be built.  That’s probably not insurmountable and, given the certainty of approval, could make the project workable.

Something else the city might look into is combining low income with missing middle units.

A second possibility is similar to the one proposed by Tim Keller, simply create a new urban limit line—further than the current de facto line at the ag-urban boundary—that would allow the city to build out to that line in a given eight-year period without needing a new vote of the people.

It would probably take a vote of the people to approve the urban limit line.

A third possibility would be similar to the urban limit line but creating a pre-approval on a project-by-project basis, allowing the voters to approve the land first and the council to then manage the land use issues as they would any other project.

The advantage of this approach is that it would not even need a Measure J amendment.  The disadvantage is that it would not necessarily offer an improved or expedited review process.

In my view, the Measure J exemption would be a contentious issue and I’m at least somewhat if not very skeptical that voters would approve it.

I am still of the belief that ultimately the state or another entity will file suit against Measure J as an unlawful constraint on the building of housing.

That may not be a quick resolution on this, however.  The first step toward that would be a rejection by either the council (in fear of the voters) or the voters themselves of a Measure J amendment.

Further, as of now, two projects are likely to go forward on the ballot—one in 2025 (Village Farms) and the second in 2026, Shriners.  The council is set to consider the Shriners NOP on June 18.

I would believe a voting down of one or both of those along with the Measure J amendment is likely to get the attention of the state.  Would the state pull the trigger right away or would they wait until the city cannot meet its 2028 RHNA obligations?  Hard to know.

In the meantime, I think the city would be making a mistake to just put the matter to a vote this November without a concerted effort to reach out to the community to break down the housing crisis, and also to explain where the state is likely to intervene.

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. Richard McCann

    I don’t see how the third “solution” is different from the current Measure J/R/D. It still requires that a developer go through a project specific vote, but with even less specifics about the development project. Measure J rose out of the mistrust of City administration of the Mace Ranch development. I doubt voters want to leave more discretion to the Council and staff.

    1. David Greenwald

      The last line is the real problem in all of this. All three of the options I laid out would ultimately put more discretion with the Council and staff.

      1. Richard McCann

        The option that I’ve suggested is that Tim’s urban limit rule be supplemented with specific baseline requirements on sustainability and social equity to address the issues that have stymied prior proposals. DiSC failed the first time because the developers refused to move development guidelines into the baseline requirements which would have garnered the endorsements of key environmental groups and reduced the opposition. Even 2 percent would have tipped the vote. (Dan Carson took down the second attempt.) Those baseline requirements remove most of the staff and council discretion.

  2. Keith Y Echols

    From a political stand point; wouldn’t simply amending and redoing the General Plan and simply rezone a bunch of existing property and then let the “builder’s remedy” take care of the rest be the smarter political move?  You appease the no growth/limited growth people while using the builder’s remedy to get around the NIMBYs.  This approach would work for housing.  But it doesn’t address the need for expansion for the commercial development needed to pay for all this new housing (and for existing community needs).

        1. Don Shor

          If it’s zoned ag, yes.

          An ordinance of the City of Davis amending the city’s general plan to add a policy requiring voter approval for certain changes to the land use designations or entitlements of properties shown on the general plan land use map and enacting the citizens’ right to vote on future use of open space and agricultural lands ordinance to provide for voter approval of (1) any general plan land use map amendment that changes a land use designation from an agricultural or urban reserve designation to an urban designation or from an agricultural designation to an urban reserve designation and (2) any proposal for development on the last two large vacant properties designated for urban use commonly known as the Covell Center and Nishi properties; this ordinance to be adopted by the voters and effective upon adoption by the voters of the city.

        2. Keith Y Echols

          that’s not where I was going with my comment; I wasn’t referring to Ag land.  As I assume that most areas that one would target for infill rezoning for redevelopment isn’t ag land.

          Btw.  why does the city of Davis protect ag land INSIDE the city limits?  It’s not like this is 1868 and this a community of farmers.  Ag land is what the county is for (right now anyway).

  3. Rick Entrikin

    In answer to Keith’s question,  “why does the city of Davis protect ag land INSIDE the city limits,” I don’t know what “ag land” that would be.   Does someone know of ag land within the city limits?

    Also, David’s comment that “Right now to rezone land, requires a vote,” seems overly-broad.   Remember the Hunt-Wesson Cannery on E. Covell?    That was a 125 (some say 100)-already within the city limits, zoned and operated as commercial for decades.  Then, in 2013, a simple majority of the city council approved rezoning of that commercial space to residential and we have The Cannery.   Remember all of the promised, tax-generating  retail at The Cannery?  Gone.  So we lost a large, viable commercial space and now pro-growth folks are complaining that we don’t have enough commercial space and need even more housing.

    Instead of constantly complaining about Measure J and blaming it for the so-called housing “crisis,” why aren’t the “build, build, build” folks complaining to the council about the lack of building in already-approved projects?   Voters were convinced to approve Nishi (a Whitcombe project) and WDAAC (West Davis Active Adult Community, now Bretton Woods, a Taormino project), but where’s the housing?  And, please, don’t give a litany of excuses for the developers.  Those projects went before the voters, were approved under a J/R/D vote and, now, before a single housing unit has been built on either property, those same two developers are trying to convince Davis residents to “trust us” and approve two additional projects.  Greed – pure and simple.

    And what of Chiles Ranch on East Eighth Street?   Yet another extension was just granted.  That infill project was approved in 2009!    Where are the houses?

    Nope, Measure J is not the problem.  And in this  era of “protecting democracy,” any Vanguard readers or City Council members who believe they can lessen the role of Davis voters are deluding themselves.

    1. Walter Shwe

      The absolute tyranny of Measure J and the hordes of housing obstructionists are the problem in Davis. Remove those 2 barriers/obstacles and the housing development market would return to the normal process of market-driven check and balances as intended in our capitalistic and non-socialistic society. One characteristic of obstructionists is their habit of regularly denigrating and smearing developers. Another characteristic is their penchant for throwing up every argument they can think of to falsely argue there is no housing crisis when the facts show the contrary.

    2. Richard McCann

      When Nishii was rejected the first time under Measure J, the developers were forced to use a much tenable access path underneath the rail line. If it had been allowed to go through Olive Ave, it would have been built much sooner. Measure J is the direct cause of its delay.

      Chiles Ranch was not subject to Measure J. That delay irrelevant. The Grande development of similar size was started and built in the interim under similar conditions.

      Bretton Woods appears to be constantly evolving due to internal issues with partners, some of those brought on board specifically to attract political support under Measure R. Perhaps less direct, but it looks like again Measure J/R/D is a source of the delay.

  4. Rick Entrikin

    Typo correction and clarification.  Writing about the former, commercially-zoned  Hunt-Wesson cannery property,  The Cannery development is roughly 100 acres.

  5. Eileen Samitz

    The concept of amending Measure J would not be received well by the public because any of the exemptions suggested eliminate the primary purpose of Measure J, which is to allow the public to see exactly what and where the project is before a final approval. So, Davis citizens would lose their right to see what projects the City would allow without their input with these exemptions being considered. Any amendment with exemptions would eliminate any leverage to pressure developers to propose well designed projects, and allow badly planned projects,

    Measure  J is a democratic process which Davis citizens would not want to lose, and there would be plenty opposition to any proposal to “amend” it.

    1. David Greenwald

      Here’s the thing that you seem to be missing: Measure J doesn’t work well when the city has to produce a set amount of housing a given period. So you are likely going to have to choose between options you don’t like – one is a further exemption and the other is the state going to court and removing Measure J altogether.

      1. Don Shor

        Measure J doesn’t work well when the city has to produce a set amount of housing a given period.

        Builders are ready to go and at least the first one can be on a ballot in 2025. Voting on a modification of Measure J would likely just delay those projects getting on the ballot. If the voters agree with your evaluation of the risk from the state, they’ll be likelier to support the projects that are put before them.
        I think the public is very unlikely to support any modification of Measure J. Do you have any reason to believe otherwise?

        1. David Greenwald

          ” Do you have any reason to believe otherwise?”

          No. That’s part of my stated position that Measure J will get taken out by the state within the next few years.

          1. Don Shor

            That’s part of my stated position that Measure J will get taken out by the state within the next few years.

            Unless the voters approve a Measure J project.

          2. David Greenwald

            In addition to Mark’s point, it would take more than one approval at this point.

        2. Mark West

          “Unless the voters approve a Measure J project.”

          In 2+ decades since it was originally passed, how many new homes subject to a ‘Measure J’ vote have been built and occupied in town? Voter approval of a non-viable project does not change the available housing stock, nor does it impact the concerns of the State. Voter approval is insufficient.


    2. Richard McCann

      Any amendment with exemptions would eliminate any leverage to pressure developers to propose well designed projects, and allow badly planned projects,

      As I’ve proposed before, Measure J/R/D can be amended to include the sustainability and social equity conditions that city commissions proposed in the baseline features which cannot be amended by the developer, staff or council. In that way voters get what they want with even more certainty than they have now. And we get the developments that we want to meet our community goals.

      1. Matt Williams

        Richard, what do you think the likelihood is that the City Council will have the courage to put a Measure J Amendment on the November ballot at the same time as their Tax Increase measure is on the ballot?

        1. David Greenwald

          Not Richard, but I would guess there is a strong chance they will do it.


          1. To a person they know the looming threat of the state
          2. It’s really a freebie, if the public doesn’t want it, they vote no and the status quo remains
          3. From an electoral perspective only Josh faces reelection in November and might balk. OTOH, Will and Gloria are not likely to run again, it’s Bapu’s idea and he wouldn’t face reelection until 2026, and Donna Neville is unlikely to back down under pressure. I think there are at least 4 votes for it.

        2. Richard McCann

          I’m not making an assessment about when to put the Measure D revision on the ballot. I’m just pointing out that it’s a false claim that any amendment would reduce leverage on developers. The approach I’m proposing would increase leverage.

  6. Eileen Samitz


    You sure like trying to use this threat over and over again to try to scare people into accepting a gutting of Measure J, however, the City’s Housing Element update was accepted by the State.

    1. David Greenwald

      Yes, the current Housing Element was accepted by the state. The question is how they are going to meet the next one and everyone involved has acknowledged it is going to have to be peripheral. Unless there is a way to get those projects approved, the state is going to step in. They are just waiting for the opportunity.

      1. Matt Williams

        David, there is a fatal flaw in your FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) message and the logic behind that fearmongering message. That fatal flaw becomes clear when you look at the following two quotes of yours

        “For example, at the end of March, the city of Fullerton settled a state lawsuit over affordable housing requirements.”

        “It’s also worth noting the issue that arose in Elk Grove.  The issue in Elk Grove is the officials rejected an affordable housing project in its Old Town neighborhood.”


        Fullerton was sued by the state  regarding projects/parcels that exist within its legal boundaries.  Elk Grove was similarly sued by the state  regarding projects/parcels that exist within its legal boundaries.  That is very different from the situation we face in Davis.  None of the parcels governed by Measure J exist within the City’s legal boundaries.  They exist in the unincorporated portion of Yolo County.  If the state wants to sue, it will need to go after Yolo County for impediments to projects that reside within its jurisdiction.

        The following quote by AG Rob Bonta that David provides in the article addresses that point.

        “Cities are not required to build housing…  These are just requirements to ensure the planning rules of the cities are set up to allow developers, whether traditional for-profit developers or non-profits, to come in and build housing if they have access to those properties.

        Bottom-line, practically and legally, Measure J does not impact any properties that fit the bolded words within the City of Davis.  The only way a currently Agriculturally zoned property subject to the provisions of Measure J can satisfy AG Bonta’s “if they have access to those properties” is if that property successfully goes through the formal annexation process and becomes part of the City.

        Then and only then will the state have legal authority to go after Measure J.

        In the meantime, Don Shor is 100% correct (in my opinion) when he says “Let the Measure J projects go to a vote.”

        1. David Greenwald

          *In the meantime, Don Shor is 100% correct (in my opinion) when he says “Let the Measure J projects go to a vote.”*

          My concern here is there is an element of insanity here – we keep trying over and over again what has not worked.

        2. Matt Williams

          David, you are ignoring the fact that 2029 is five years in the future.   Then you would have on top of that all the time that the court proceedings would take.

          Fearmongering is currently your middle name.

          1. David Greenwald

            The city is possibly going to have a Measure J amendment in November and a project on the ballot next spring.

        3. Matt Williams

          The city is possibly going to have a Measure J amendment in November and a project on the ballot next spring.

          The key word there is “possibly.”  Do you believe the current City Council has the political courage to put a meaningful amendment to Measure J on the November ballot … especially a November ballot that will have a Tax measure on it?  That would make the Tax measure DOA.

          With respect to the project that doesn’t change the 2029 timeline … and it is worth repeating Don’s advice … “Let the voters vote.”

          Stop fearmongering.


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