Guest Commentary: Wildhorse Proposal Must Be Rejected, Conservation Easement Must Not Be Violated

City promises made, need to be kept

By Eileen M. Samitz

The City needs to reject the North Covell Creek housing application to develop 75 acres of the Wildhorse golf course because it would clearly violate the 1998 Deed of Conservation Easement executed between the Wildhorse property owner and the City.  The Conservation Easement unequivocally states that its purpose is “…forever conserving the open space character…” of the property.

In the early 1990’s I was one of a group of neighborhood representatives from the surrounding neighborhoods of Green Meadows, Covell Farms and La Buena Vida who spent years in a citizen-based planning process negotiating long and hard for a better Wildhorse project. We emphasized and placed a priority on the condition of a Conservation Easement on the golf course so that it would never be developed and would remain a golf course with its open space nature and preserving the habitat features around it.

We made it clear that this commitment needed to be permanent. Subsequently, the developers and the City agreed to this and included the Conservation Easement commitment to be solid and impenetrable into perpetuity. Since the developers, the City Staff and City Council completely committed to the Conservation Easement, promises made then, need to be kept to our community.  Otherwise, it makes clear that our City government cannot be trusted on any agreement or any information they espouse to Davis citizens.

Regarding additional background, in 1995 there was a referendum campaign against the Wildhorse development agreement which went to a vote on the May ballot.  However, the Development Agreement included many benefits including $8 million to the City’s Major Project Financing Plan, a 9-acre dedicated school site at no cost to the school district, and the critical Conservation Easement which the neighborhood representatives were successful in solidifying. The outcome was that Davis voters approved the Wildhorse Development Agreement which included the Conservation Easement. Therefore, any attempt now by the City to renege on this commitment would be a violation of public trust and an attempt to overturn a public vote.

The intent of a Conservation Easement  is “…for the exclusive purpose of assuring that the open space character of the Easement Area will be conserved and maintained forever, and that uses of the land that are inconsistent with these conservation purposes will be prevented or corrected.” The Wildhorse Conservation Easement also expressly prohibits any commercial, residential, or industrial use or activity on the easement area.

The California legislature codified conservation easements as a unique public-private conservation method. Civil Code 815 clearly specifies that Conservation Easements are binding upon successive land owners.  Most important, the code states, “A conservation easement shall be perpetual in duration.”    

The permanent binding provisions of the Wildhorse Conservation Easement and State law are abundantly clear to the property owner and City. The notion of surrendering almost 75 acres of deed-restricted land to incompatible uses must be summarily rejected. Any attempt to change or “amend” any Conservation easement is a dangerous precedent and must be rejected, plus it would invite a lawsuit that will be financially costly for the City to litigate, the cost for which would come out of our City’s already stretched budget.

Regarding specifics on the documentation of the Conservation Easement and the development agreement, here are the facts:

On September 28, 1994, the City and Duffel Company executed a development agreement  for the Wildhorse Project, of which  Section 3.2(f) states: “Duffel shall record a conservation easement in favor of the City or a non-profit land trust selected and approved by the City on the property to be used as a golf course. The conservation easement shall preclude development of the golf course property for other urban uses and structures.” The conservation easement was executed between Duffel and the City in March 1998, for the express purpose of “forever conserving the open space character of the subject property.”

Despite the unambiguous language in the Development Agreement and the Conservation Easement regarding the easement’s permanency, in December 2018 the owner submitted a development application that proposed to convert almost six acres of the golf course abutting Pole Line Road into the “Balterra at Wildhorse Condominium Project,” consisting of 40 – 60 homes. This was followed in early 2019 with a public meeting and strong opposition from community members, since this would also be a violation of the Conservation Easement.

The City responded in July 2019, noting that “…the property in question is covered by a Conservation Easement that preserves the property as an open space.” This means that once again, the golf course owner applicant was clearly advised that the property must remain as undeveloped open space.

Yet, here we are with another proposal to attempt to violate the Conservation Easement and the Development Agreement conditions with paving over 75 acres of the golf course wiping out that open space and the protected habitat around it as well.

One wonders why the City even accepted this current application, knowing that this attempt to violate a Conservation Easement and Development Agreement which Davis citizens fought long and hard for is astonishing. Further, here is absolutely no language that allows any kind of land swap in the Conservation Easement, nor the Development Agreement as the applicant is trying for. Moreover, if the City violates these promises and agreements, what next? Will the City now start paving over our parks, greenbelts and habitat areas?

In summary, the City of Davis, the City Council, and the Wildhorse developers agreed to the hard negotiated Conservation Easement and Development Agreement. Anything other than a solid rejection of this application would be a horrendous precedent and a complete violation of trust by our City government to our community and would invite a costly lawsuit. For community members concerned about this issue and want more information please email citizens@dcn.org or call (530) 756-5165.

Eileen Samitz is a former City of Davis Planning Commissioner and served on the subsequent Housing Element Steering committee and the 2001 General Plan update land use committee.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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1 Comment

  1. Richard McCann

    I don’t usually agree with Eileen on local development issues, but I agree with her here. But for a different reason. We are not going to get voter approval of future projects if those voters cannot trust that their basic understanding of the promises made, e.g., a permanent conservation easement, can be rescinded. Our trust in government actions is diminishing, perhaps for good reasons. Credibility is key to getting citizen buy in. Right now that’s in short supply, even in Davis.

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