Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Starting the Land Discussion about Measure J Amendments Now Is the Best Strategy

Covell site in 2005

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Over the last week, the Vanguard has had a series of columns on a potential Measure J amendment.

Why are we having this discussion now?  Next week the council is going to have an item exploring the possibility of a Measure J amendment on the ballot for November.  As I have noted previously, I think simply putting the question before the voters without a lot of discussion would be futile.

At the very least, raising the issue on these pages with our audience informs at least a portion of the community that this is coming.

Why is the council considering putting this on the ballot?  Because I don’t think they believe they can meet the state demands for housing without changing Measure J.

Why now?  The people who have argued that we don’t necessarily need to do this now have a point—the danger is how to meet housing obligations in the 7th RHNA cycle where we are going to need to rezone agricultural land to rezone sufficient land to meet our housing needs.

The data for that is not until 2028 or 2029, so putting this on in 2024 is probably a little bit earlier than it absolutely needs to be.  But I think this gets back to the point I have been making, that there are a series of things that need to occur—two housing projects, a General Plan update, and the Measure J amendment.

These are all part of the same conversation, and it makes sense to concurrently discuss and plan.

Amending Measure J is likely to be contentious.

Tim Keller argues, “I would disagree that amending measure J is necessarily unpopular. “

By his thinking, “If people understood that we are actually at risk of losing our control over planning entirely, they would likely vote to amend it, rather than lose it.”

This is the key point I keep raising and keep getting accused of fearmongering—the likelihood that the state comes in and simply goes to court to take out Measure J (implicit in that calculation is that the effort would succeed).

Should we not at least plan for that potential action?  When the community makes decisions on two projects—the General Plan amendment and a Measure J amendment—should they not consider the possibility that the state will take away local control if Davis doesn’t act accordingly?

And that’s the point—while the ultimate stick might not come for 4 to 5 years, key planning and key actions will take place much sooner and the community at the very least should be informed about the problem, even if they ultimately disagree on the solution.

There is a notion that the council won’t put this forward because they want to focus on a revenue measure rather than a controversial land use battle.

Obviously, we can’t ignore that possibility since it was a stated reason for not putting forward a Measure J project—although another part of that is the amount of work that staff would have to put forward.

Tim Keller said yesterday, “I don’t get the logic of why a Measure J amendment would ‘tank’ the revenue measure.  Can someone explain why that has to be on the ballot by itself?”

I really don’t think it does.  We know in 2018, for example, there was a Measure J ballot measure, along with two revenue measures.  What happened is that the parks renewal passed overwhelmingly.  The Measure J measure (West Davis Active Adult Community) passed with 55 percent of the vote and the new parcel tax received 57 percent of the vote, but failed to gain the two-thirds majority it needed.

I don’t see how the interplay between these measures had much of an impact.  The only reason why the parcel tax failed is that it needed 66.7 and got 57 percent of the vote.

The council is most likely going to put a 50 percent tax measure on the ballot and frankly I have not seen a tax measure get less than 50 percent.

I don’t agree that there is some huge angry mob out there that is likely to vote down the tax measure.  And the small number of people who would take it out on the revenue measure, out of anger for the land use measure, probably aren’t supporting either to begin with.

I had some interesting discussions about what the Measure J amendment should look like.

The thinking is that a high affordable exemption is going to have trouble penciling with or without a Measure J exemption.

Some folks have argued that Measure J already has a high affordable exemption—100 percent affordable—that has yielded zero projects and they don’t think lowering that to 40 percent is likely to change anything.

The more likely approach would be some form of urban limit line but the belief that some have registered is not to simply draw the line on the map—actually pull in the developers and property owners to figure out where to draw the lines.

Of course, in either case, whether the voters will support such a thing is up in the air.  I tend to agree with those who argue that the voters are not likely to support such an exemption in 2024.

Can a longer term community discussion work?

That’s an important question.

As Tim Keller suggested, “that makes an assumption about how informed our electorate is… which is the problem…   But I think groups like DCANN and SGY would step up and help get the word out.”

That’s the critical point—educating the public that there is a real threat to local control over planning if we refuse to pivot off of current policies.

Fortunately 2024 isn’t do or die, but delaying the start of the discussion is not a good strategy, in my opinion.

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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  1. Tim Keller

    I was starting to write a response article to sum up some of my points.. and worrying that I didnt have time to do that AND make a couple of deadlines with my client.. so thank you for saving me the time David…

    That said, I’d like to chime in with a couple of additional thoughts.

    1) I dont think its “fear-mongering” to propose that measure J will fail.   We know of at least two  ways in which it can be reasonably expected to fail: action by the state or a suit brought by a citizen or a developer.

    There is another mechanism probably as well.  I heared almost a year ago from a real estate attorney, that Measure J is likely already illegal under state law merely for procedural reasons:   As it was explained to me, a state law passed prior to measure J’s reauthorization in 2020 requires that the state review measures like ours prior to themn being put on the ballot, and that the city didn’t do that in 2020.

    You might want to do some investigqtive journalism on that opinion, I havent raised it before because I dont know the details first hand, but I do know that in the opinion of that attorney, measure J is about as fragile and ripe for being overturned as any municipal ordinance could be.

    2). My read of the political spectrum in Davis is that the measure J issue cuts differently through the various constituencies than a run-of the mill housing measure does.  We have heard many of the voices opposing various projects say one thing:  “Im not against growth, but this project is bad and I want something better conceived”

    Measure J the way it is written creates a binary discusison about growth – whether we approve the project before us, or not.

    What is not being discussed under this system where the property owner is in de-facto control of the “planning” process is the “HOW” of housing: HOW do we plan our housing, WHAT KIND of housing do we build.

    We we have seen, developers have a desire to build single family housing because it it

    When we have a more in-depth discussion about housing, you find that a lot of the people who are typically on the side of “No” are in fact not against “growth”, but instead against “sprawl” and on THAT point we find common ground.

    THOSE people, the ones who say things like ” I don’t want Davis to turn into elk grove or natomas” but who reasonably understand that we do need to grow, are going to be on the side of modifying measure J.   And if you add them to the other half of the population who is by default more pro-growth, I wouldn’t be surprised if you aren’t back in the 80% of the population voting FOR measure J as amended.

    1. Tim Keller

      The line above should read “developers have a desire to build single family housing because it is more profitable”

      This site randomly stops taking keyboard input as I type… (which is what happened there) and there is no edit function if I miss a correction like that…

      Looking forward David’s revised website whenever that comes out…  🙂

  2. Richard McCann

    Putting an urban limit line on the ballot without a strong set of sustainability and equity features like the ones that the NRC proposed for DiSC will likely be a non starter. The escape clause for developers would be that they have to go through the current Measure J/R/D process instead.

    I’m not sure there’s enough time to both agree on these parameters and educate the voters before November. Time was already short last fall when we started this latest round of discussion.

    1. Tim Keller

      Agreed.  There is a narrow path that actually works.

      Now, I think we have done to the work to find an optimal course amongst the various options, mostly through the back and forth debate that has happened in these pages and in side conversations along the way.   I wouldn’t mind if the city wanted to pick up that plan wholesale.  Its ready for them to do so,

      but if the city wants to start its own process and do ‘engagement’ and policy development through their own process from scratch.. then yeah, there isnt time for that.  Not for the november 2024 ballot at least.

  3. Matt Williams

    the danger is how to meet housing obligations in the 7th RHNA cycle where we are going to need to rezone agricultural land to rezone sufficient land to meet our housing needs.

    There is a fundamental problem with the statement above.  To be accurate, it needs to modified to read …

    the challenge is how to meet housing obligations in the 7th RHNA cycle where we are going to need to rezone agricultural land to rezone sufficient land to meet the official housing need the State is imposing on the City (and a portion of the community) as an unfunded mandate.

    Because the Vanguard is not recognizing or discussing either the clearly stratified housing needs of the City/community or the unfunded mandate issue, the “sledge hammer” solutions the Vanguard is putting forth do not match the “nail” of our housing needs.

    Where is the need for housing in Davis coming from?

    (1) Wealthy investors looking to reap strong profits from the housing rental market

    (2) Current Bay Area home owners, who are capitalizing on pandemic-accelerated changes in the employment marketplace … they can work remotely from home.

    (3) The over 250,000 living UCD alumni who have accumulated enough wealth to be able to afford to move back to Davis because it is emotionally a “return to their roots”

    (4) Some of the 15,115 people that the US Census shows are employed within the city limits of Davis (11,081 of the 15,115 are classified by the Census as “Primary Jobs” with the remaining 4,834 being part-time jobs)

    (5) Some of the 11,000 to 16,000 Davis campus employees of UCD (different UCD employment reports show different numbers in that range).  A March 2023 report I received directly from UCD’s Department of Budget and Institutional Analysis is on the low end of that range (approximately 11,000) with only 3,597 of the 11,000+ living in the City of Davis.

    (6) Some of the 30,0000 students enrolled at the Davis campus

    (7) Retirees who want to be in Davis to be near their family … or just because Davis is an excellent r(and expanding in numbers) retirement community.

    There may be other categories, but those are the biggies.  How many of them are “needs”?  How many of them are simply “wants”?

    Which of them bring additional students to DJUSD?


  4. Jim Frame

    Is Measure J vulnerable to getting rescinded?  Maybe.  There are certainly some plausible lines of attack toward that end, but the outcome remains uncertain.  So any attempt to amend Measure J that gives developers an avenue to continue with single-family-detached business-as-usual is likely to fail, because the choices would be:

    1.  Keep Measure J as-is and see if anything comes of the legal threats.  Even if challenged, the question would take months or years to resolve in court.

    2.  Amend Measure J to include a developer escape clause, in which case we get the effect of no Measure J, but in short order because there’d be no court battle.

    For Measure J supporters (80% of the electorate?), that choice is a no-brainer.

    I’m skeptical that the CC has the vision and will to design an amended Measure J that does anything other than effectively gut it, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

    1. Richard McCann

      I doubt anyone would propose an amendment that would have a developer escape clause. The one I would include would use the current Measure J/R/D process as the only alternative. The key is to have a prescriptive set of standards that the staff can’t abrogate to make a project “feasible”–a truly effective contract.

      I’d like to know what amendment you believe could past muster and get on the ballot in the first place?

  5. Jim Frame

    I’d like to know what amendment you believe could past muster and get on the ballot in the first place?

    Tim laid out some criteria a few months ago that would work for me.  They required transit-oriented development along with a density gradient outward from the transit corridor.  There were other details that escape me at the moment, but I would be able to support a plan like that.  Would the CC?


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