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What Measure O (Open Space tax) Should Be

Open space mapBy Robert Milbrodt

While on the City Council, Sue Greenwald made a motion for the City to develop an open space and habitat protection plan with a funding mechanism to be submitted for voter approval. Her proposal died for lack of a second, even for the purpose of discussion. Sue asked a group of community activists to carry the torch.

The Davis Visioning Group took up the task and built a comprehensive science based open space and habitat protection plan that was submitted to the City, Mitch Sears. That plan included a GIS model identifying and prioritizing land for acquisition, and a complete set of tools for maximizing the use of Measure O funds, with management and mapping tools to facilitate public scrutiny and accountability. The premise at the outset was for the community to contribute the funds necessary for property control or ownership and for the City to contribute maintenance and management.

The City stripped the plan of all but the funding mechanism and the council put it before the voters as Measure O. Those who actually put together the plan refused to participate in the campaign because Measure O had no plan and no accountability. The public was given numerous false assurances that the City would subsequently incorporate these elements if the measure was approved. It has been 17 years. Whether it is palatable or not, the City needs to own its catastrophic errors and apologize to this community, and adopt a science based plan. That is an important first step to restoring the trust they have destroyed.

At an Open Space Commission meeting in 2016, a developer proposed a farmland mitigation for his project by purchasing an easement on City owned land. That would be consistent with the original idea of the City selling whatever land it acquires, retaining an easement and property management agreement on that land, and using the proceeds of the transaction to acquire other components in the habitat plan. The trouble is, the City has no plan. If there was, the developer’s proposal might facilitate our goals.

When the City negotiated a farm lease for the acreage just east of Mace Blvd, the lease should have been structured to serve the goals in a habitat plan. That was not done. In the absence of a habitat plan, how could the agreement have been structured to serve such goals?

When asked why easements were being purchased for large agricultural parcels, City staff explained that easements have to be acquired over entire parcels, based on information provided by the Yolo Land Trust. This information is FALSE. But, why would the City presume to rely on the Yolo Land Trust or assume that its interests align with the City’s.

Does PG&E purchase entire parcels to install gas or power lines? Did the City acquire entire parcels to install a pipeline for the surface water project?

Of course not. Such projects don’t even acquire full ownership of a portion of a parcel. These entities acquire only the interest necessary (easement) for the intended purpose. The City should be doing the same with Measure O funds. Think how much further we could stretch our very limited public funds if those funds were used correctly and wisely. Rather than squandering money on an entire 100 acre farm easement, the City could have purchased just the 6 or 8 acre riparian buffer necessary for habitat conservation.

To this, City staff offered two inadequate replies: that easements are less costly than eminent domain, as if that is the only alternative; and that the City has other priorities (when objectives would have been the better term). There are an enormous number of alternatives to eminent domain, though this option must obviously be kept in the tool box. The habitat plan designed by the Davis Visioning Group identified and prioritized the use of various land management tools: coordinating voluntary efforts by property owners, land management agreements, rent payments in exchange for appropriate land management, City/County zoning, easements, partial ownership, full ownership, clustering agreements, transferable development rights, sale/lease back agreements, and eminent domain… to be used at the lowest level necessary to accomplish habitat goals. Multiple objectives are best achieved by establishing and adhering to priorities; and that is precisely what was delivered by the Davis Visioning Group’s plan.

Flood zones, the Williamson Act, City/County policies, Measure J/R make farm land protection easy. There is no need to own this type of property within the City’s planning area. There is only an interest in having that property farmed in a manner that is conducive (or not detrimental) to habitat goals.

The City made a complete mess of Measure O, and based on the mistaken beliefs revealed by City staff, there is little reason to believe this mess is going to get fixed. Bureaucrats rarely admit their shortcomings, and fervently resist reaching out to those with the necessary expertise, because they don’t want to concede their power to the community, which is where it belongs.

Contact the City and your council members and demand that your tax dollars be put to a proper use. The City has purchased easements on parcels that are in no danger of being lost to development. They are buying easements over entire parcels rather than just the portion needed for habitat purposes. Whenever the City maps public restricted property, they like to include property that is not part of the City’s efforts. This gives the illusion of having accomplished more than was promised. As an example, see the map on this page. Only the light blue areas are properties that are vested to the City of Davis. One large portion, the Hamel Ranch, was purchased by the City to settle a lawsuit, not to protect threatened habitat.


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