What is fueling the push to radically rewrite Davis’s laws on development?
by Colin Walsh
“An agenda for building up the power base of the neoliberal right is not going to get too far in liberal beachheads like San Francisco or New York using the traditional Republican platform. It needs a new story that appeals to young millennials, and it has found it in the “pro-housing” language of the YIMBYs. But in the end, it’s pushing the same underlying principles: the way to a more efficient future is to destroy belief in regulation, public investment, and democratic participation, whether the arena is charter schools or health care or housing affordability.”
Nathan J. Robinson made these statements in a recent Current Affairs article. Let’s look at what is behind the YIMBY push in Davis.
The Davis Housing Element Update Committee (HEC) had its final meeting on May 26th where they voted to pass 10 motions that, if ultimately adopted, would radically change the development landscape in Davis. The recommendations include abolishing the 1% annual growth cap, doing away with single-family (R-1) housing zoning, removing checks, balances and public input from the approval process, and several other radical developer-friendly proposals. Neither staff nor the public were informed ahead of time of this discussion by the Committee. These radical proposals have since taken up most of the discussion at 2 planning commission meetings, and at the Davis City Council meeting on 6/15. To understand where these recommendations came from, one needs to understand the committee members and the web of developer and real estate interests surrounding the Committee. This chart helps paint that picture.
Three Housing Element Committee (HEC) Members With Developer Ties
1. Doug Buzbee
Buzbee is the Owner of DBRE Consulting – commercial property management and real estate consulting. There is no website for the company and no information readily available online as to who his clients are. His offices are at the Tandem Property buildings where Whitcombe’s offices are too. Buzbee’s Form 700 (conflict of interest self-reporting required by the State of CA for many government positions) filed with the City related to his service on the Finance and Budget Commission reveals that Buzbee has millions of dollars of investment in the Covell Village Property, the Nishi project, and in several Tandem apartment complexes throughout Davis, and on the UCD campus.
2. Don Gibson
Gibson was a genetics PhD candidate at UCD, but has spent considerable time in the last few years as sometimes paid and sometimes unpaid political lobbyist and organizer. He worked for the Nishi campaign, for the ARC/DISC (Measure B) campaign, and the University Commons (University Mall) campaign. According to his personal website http://www.dongibson.org/
Yolo Growth seems to only have recently emerged (see this Davisite article that includes a discussion of Yolo Growth’s proposals), but the website has posted two 2020 advocacy pieces written by DCD members on behalf of the Brixmor University Commons project. There is no indication where the current funding is coming from for the current Yolo Growth Work, but their work is very similar to other Spafford and Lincoln projects, and the website is done in the same style. This group is very similar to other so-called “YIMBY” groups in CA, many of which act as fronts for developers and urge rapid construction growth.
Gibson was the only signer of Yolo Growth's letter to the HEC advocating for radical market deregulation favorable to developers. This letter was sent by Gibson to the rest of the HEC Committee and was not released to the public until after the HEC adopted all of GIbson/Yolo Growth proposals.
3. Don Fouts
Fouts is the principal for Fouts Homes. He has development rights for land inside the Mace Curve. At the last HEC meeting, the Committee voted to fast track development inside the Mace Curve including land Fouts has development rights for. Fouts recently developed the Grande Village site, The Villas at El Macero and has yet to break ground on his approved project at Chiles Ranch on 8th Street.
- Doug Buzbee’s mailing address is at the Tandem Properties offices at 3500 Anderson Road. He is married to the daughter of one of Whitcombe’s former business partners. Buzbee has significant shared investments with the Whitcombe family as disclosed in his form 700.
- Doug Buzbee’s LinkedIn page indicates he previously worked for Reynolds and Brown, a partner with Dan Ramos on the Mace Ranch and ARC/DISC projects.
- Don Gibson’s resume includes work for Spafford & Lincoln as a political organizer for the DISC project.
- Don Gibson campaigned for the Nishi projects.
- Don Gibson’s resume includes that he was an organizer for the DISC project. This campaign was characterized by repetitive scripted callers to public meetings.
- Don Gibson serves both as the chair of Yolo Growth and is a member of the Housing Element Committee. It was Gibson who sent Yolo Growth's controversial recommendations to the HEC. This is a very unusual situation to have a City committee member also serve as chair of a pressure group without even making public disclosure until after the last HEC meeting. These radical Yolo Growth market deregulation proposals were adopted as-is by the HEC.
- Don Gibson was previously the president of the Davis College Democrats, and DCD members continue to assist with his lobbying projects.
- Don Gibson’s resume indicates he worked for Brixmor, coordinating their campaign to convert University Mall to a 7-story mixed use apartment complex. This campaign was characterized by repetitive script-reading public commenters.
- Don Fouts, the principal of Fouts homes, serves on the City of Davis Housing Element Committee. Fouts developed the Grande Village, has an approved project for Chiles Ranch, and has development rights for land inside the Mace curve. Fouts was appointed by Brett Lee.
- Sustainable Growth Yolo has many similarities to other Spafford & Lincoln projects, but the Yolo Growth website has no indication of who is behind the organization.
- Spafford and Lincoln regularly employ DCD students as paid campaigners for its political campaigns. Spafford is a PR firm that works for developers to lobby to get projects approved.
- The Davis Vanguard is the only publication to publish the 10 radical Yolo Growth proposals, and they did so without revealing that the signer, Don Gibson, was both the chair of Yolo Growth and a member of the HEC. The Vanguard has since published several columns written by David Greenwald advocating for the radical Yolo Growth proposals.
- Tim Keller is a member of Sustainable Growth Yolo and has advocated for the market deregulation and pro-growth policies.
- Yolo Growth’s lobbying efforts are supported by DCD, and DCD students are advocating for Yolo Growth’s proposal in the same way they have advocated for other Spafford & Lincoln projects. Student callers appear to be reading from scripts.
- DCD members occasionally publish on the Vanguard.
- Spafford and Lincoln PR firm was paid about $500,000 to run the two Nishi campaigns. All the Principals of Spafford & Lincoln also work for Gateway Equity Partners, a real estate solution company. Tim Ruff, one of the Nishi partners, serves on the board for Gateway Equity.
- Spafford & Lincoln was the PR firm running the campaign for the DISC project.
- DCD was paid $1,000 directly by the Nishi campaign. Several DCD members were also paid directly as individuals during both Nishi campaigns (public campaign filings, Download Nishi expense report 5.31.2018 page 15 of 31 shows the payment to DCD).
- The Nishi campaign paid for extensive advertising on the Davis Vanguard website over a period of many years. The Vanguard frequently wrote favorable articles supporting the project.
- Tim Keller’s Area 52 project was to be included in the first Nishi proposal.
- The Mace Ranch Innovation Project (MRIC), then the Aggie Research Center (ARC), then the Davis Innovation Sustainability Campus (DISC) project all paid for advertising on the Davis Vanguard website. This amounted to many years of advertising. The Vanguard repeatedly wrote favorable articles supporting the projects.
- Many DCD students advocated for the DISC project. Some were paid advocates for the project.
- Tim Keller’s Inventopia project was to be located in the DISC development. Keller advocated for DISC.
- Tim Keller often writes pro-development articles published only in the Davis Vanguard.
- Many DCD students identified themselves while advocating for Brixmor’s University Commons project and frequently appeared to be reading directly from scripts, much like the tactics being used for the Housing Element. A DCD member wrote articles supporting University Mall that first appeared in the Vanguard and now also appear on the Yolo Growth website.