Growing Pains: Thirty Years in the History of Davis


Chapter 7 - Growth--The Great Conundrum

The 1995 drive to stop Wildhorse was more than a political battle to halt a housing project and golf course.

To the project's opponents, the drive was a crusade to protect the small-town character of Davis against money-hungry developers willing to take the community down the path of rampant growth. "Will you put a developer's personal financial timeline ahead of our right to grow slowly, maintain our rare quality of life and ensure the education our children deserve?" asked the Wildhorse Opposition Association in its literature during a 1995 referendum over the 425-acre project. "Good cities are rare! Let's not rush to lose ours."

Similar refrains reverberated through earlier campaigns over how quickly Davis should grow and would be heard again during later battles over Covell Center. Fear that Davis was losing its soul to rampant growth frequently gave political battles an angry, strident tone. Admitting defeat wasn't an option until opponents had exhausted all their weapons, including referendums, initiatives and the courts. Opponents often sought to discredit each other, questioning the other side's character and motives.

The strident tone of slow-growth debates reflected in part uncertainty over how much growth was too much. Most everyone in town agreed that Davis should grow slowly, recognizing that at some point its roads would become overcrowded, bicycling around town would become difficult, crime would approach big-city proportions and the community would face other ills typical in larger cities. Perhaps most alarming was the notion that Davis might lose its small-town character without even realizing it. That notion helped turn political battles into crusades because no one could say for sure whether each was just another skirmish or a fateful battlefield with the fate of slow growth hanging in the balance.

Growth fears took root in the 1960s, then matured into a powerful political preoccupation in the 1970s. In following decades, no one advocated rapid growth publicly. Always, the questions were: how much and how soon? Still, growth control frequently was used as a litmus test to judge political leaders. Council members thought to be cozy with developers or unwilling to stand resolutely in the face of growth pressures resolutely risked the wrath of city voters at re-election time.

Davis didn't become a slow-growth champion by accident. Growth control was a natural reaction to the community's rapid growth during the 1960s, and the awareness that more growth was inevitable as UC Davis added students.

When the 1960s dawned, city officials knew Davis was poised for a population explosion. By the end of the decade, they already were debating whether to curb growth. Looming in the background were projections that Davis could have as many as 85,000 people by 1990 and 240,000 by 2010. In 1969, a regional planning body predicted Davis would be the second largest population center in the area behind only the Sacramento metropolitan area.

"Rapid growth of Davis is more certain than in any community in California," said the 1961 Core Area Plan, noting that the community was bound to grow as enrollment increased at UCD. [1] And, the university had big growth plans in those days. Enrollment was at about 2,900 students in 1960, and was projected to reach 5,500 in 1965, 10,000 in 1970 and 15,000 by 1975.

A special census conducted by Yolo County in 1969 pegged the population of Davis at 21,750 people, more than twice as many as the 8,910 it had in 1960. Davis accounted for more than 60 percent of the county's population growth, passing Woodland as the biggest city in Yolo County. At about the same time, city leaders learned at a meeting with campus officials that UCD was growing faster than expected. Campus officials reported enrollment was already at 11,500, would be near 12,000 the following fall, was headed for 19,000 and likely would reach 24,000 eventually.

City officials couldn't help but wonder how much more growth was on the horizon. In 1967, city leaders shot down the Chamber of Commerce plan for doubling the amount of land in the Davis General Plan, but agreed to expand the General Plan's projected holding capacity to 110,000 residents. A 1969 sewer needs study assumed the community would have 240,000 by the year 2010. And the Sacramento Regional Planning Commission came out with preliminary population estimates later the same year, predicting Davis would have 85,000 people by 1990. The plan not only showed Davis becoming by far the biggest city in Yolo County, but also the second largest population center in the region behind the Sacramento metropolitan area.

Mindful of such estimates, city officials began as early as 1969 to grapple with growth, foreshadowing debates that would be repeated many times in later years. Mayor Ralph A. Aronson raised the growth issue during a joint brainstorming session of the City Council and Planning Commission held that year. "If it seems to be heresy for Davisites to consider terminating the growth of the city, think of the shock waves germinated by a suggestion by the mayor himself that Davis cease all plans to annex any more land around its perimeter and concentrate fully on developing the areas within its present boundary," The Enterprise said the following day. [2] The mayor didn't call for an end to annexations, but wanted to draw attention to the issue, questioning why the city shouldn't let Yolo County control development of lands surrounding the city.

Others rose up to oppose that notion. Planning Commissioner Paul Marr argued annexations were essential to ensure peripheral development met the city's high quality standards. Councilman Norm Woodbury also backed city control, saying otherwise city residents near the periphery of town might someday find junkyards and smokestacks in their backyards. Woodbury raised the possibility that Davis would keep growing until it reached the boundaries of neighboring cities.

By the 1990s, growth control had become a creed in Davis, but sometimes found itself in conflict with the city's financial needs.

Sports boosters were ecstatic, slow-growth advocates relieved in 1994 when developer John Whitcombe put forward plans for Covell Center, a project he proposed for 386 acres of farmland located at the northwest corner of Covell Boulevard and Pole Line Road. He wanted to build 660 residences, but what caught everybody's eye was the developer's proposal to make the project's focal point a 75-acre youth sports complex. Visions of new baseball diamonds, soccer fields and a swimming pool danced in the heads of sports boosters. In July, 1995, members of the Davis Sports Coalition turned out in force to lobby the Davis City Council on behalf of the project, arguing that the community badly needed the facilities promised by Whitcombe. Some growth-control activists liked the plans because 660 residences were far fewer than the 1,500 for Crossroads Place, an earlier residential project that was proposed for the site, but never built.

Not everybody was pleased, though. Some city officials couldn't help but see Whitcombe's proposal as a Trojan Horse. The reason brought into sharp focus the severe financial predicament the city found itself in during the 1990s. UCD, Yolo County, and the Davis Joint Unified School District faced similar budget crises, because their revenue couldn't keep pace with all their service needs.

Just as the community was taking an initial look at Whitcombe's proposal, the city was struggling with budget cuts aimed at erasing a deficit for the 1995-96 fiscal year projected at about $1.2 million. Even if the sports complex was built, the city likely would have a hard time finding money to operate and maintain it. More importantly, because of an ironic twist of fate, some city officials found themselves longing for the 1,500 residences proposed for Crossroads Place, rather than the 660 Whitcombe wanted to build.

The predicament was a bit of a paradox for Davis. The reason was found in a bulky document completed in 1989 known as the Major Projects Financing Plan. Found within its pages were more than 125 projects the city expected to finance by the year 2010. By the start of the 1995-96 fiscal year, the total projected price tag was pegged at more than $200 million. The list of projects included big-ticket items such as the freeway overpass at Pole Line Road, improvements to the freeway interchange at Mace Boulevard, and development of district parks.

Other cities had similar, but typically far less comprehensive long-range financial plans. In the Davis plan, some of the money was expected from the federal government, state officials or the University of California. The bulk of the burden, though, was clearly going to fall on new developments in Davis. In theory, new developments were to pay for the service needs they created through fees and existing residents were to pay for benefits that came their way. In reality, state law left the city few options for increasing the tax burden on existing residents. Since much of the funding for the Major Projects Financing Plan was to come from the approximately 2,500 new houses and apartments foreseen by the city's 1987 General Plan, any proposal to significantly reduce that total was bound to worry city officials. That's a big reason Whitcombe's Covell Center was disconcerting. By 1998, the developed had scrapped plans for the sports complex, eliminating some of the financial questions raised by the project. The ultimate fate of Covell Center still hung in the balance early in 1998, as city officials worked to put finishing touches on an update of the Davis General Plan.

The financing plan also was a key underlying issue during the sometimes bitter political battle over Wildhorse, a housing and golf-course project to be built across Pole Line Road from the Covell Center site. Hoping to at least delay the project, opponents sponsored Measure R, a referendum that faced local voters at a special municipal election held on May 9, 1995. By voting against Measure R, voters could nullify a development agreement endorsed by a majority of the City Council. If they succeeded in nullifying the development agreement, opponents planned to sponsor an initiative that would delay development of Wildhorse for about five years. "Wildhorse growth can wait," said the Wildhorse Opposition Association in its campaign literature. "It's time for a growth break. Let's not trade Wildhorse's big promises for big-city problems."

Wildhorse's supporters relied on several arguments: The project was a good one, developed through an extensive citizen-based planning process, they said. It would provide an extraordinary assortment of benefits to the community. Counting the golf course, 60 percent of the land would be left as open space. It would donate a nine-acre elementary school site to the school district. And, Wildhorse would contribute more than $8 million to the Major Projects Financing Plan. Supporters also pointed to a quandary that was particularly galling for some slow-growth advocates: halting or even slowing down the community's expansion would be painful. In effect, the city had to keep allowing more development to raise revenue for amenities needed in projects already completed, under construction, or in planning stages.

Councilwoman Lois Wolk voted against Wildhorse in July 1994, but came out in favor of Measure R, thereby asking city voters to ratify the project's development agreement. "I thought we needed some breathing room and should postpone this project. My greatest concern was a matter of timing," the councilwoman said in a letter to city voters, explaining her 1994 vote against the project. "I was concerned, and still am, about the recent increase in new construction and the lagging capability of the city and our school district to provide the necessary schools and parks to properly implement our General Plan." [3]

In her letter, she noted developers would retain the right to build Wildhorse even if city voters renounced the development agreement. "While opponents of Wildhorse may wish to use the Measure R election as an opportunity to make a symbolic statement against growth, defeat of the development agreement would only result in granting more building permits without benefits," Wolk said. "This agreement guarantees the community the benefits of the project, including the timely completion of the golf course, a free school site, a contribution to the Pole Line Corridor Plan, an additional neighborhood park and much more." [4]

A majority of local voters agreed with such sentiments, deciding on May 9, 1995 to ratify the development agreement by approving Measure R.

In the summer of 1995, the council created an ad hoc committee to examine the Major Projects Financing Plan, in part because council members were troubled over an annual review of the plan undertaken the preceding fall by city staff. Trying to estimate the cost of projects more accurately, staff raised the cost estimate of the entire plan to almost $229 million, nearly $26 million more than the preceding year's estimate. The increase wasn't a complete surprise because city officials could only guess at the cost of some projects when the plan was adopted in 1989. The increases, however, were beginning to call into question the city's ability to finance the plan.

Local officials could find some comfort in the knowledge they weren't alone. Throughout California, cities, counties, school districts and other local governments experienced dollar droughts, as growing populations thirsted for additional services and facilities, constraints were placed on traditional revenue sources and the quest for new sources of money turned up few realistic alternatives.

The city's financial fortunes began changing dramatically around 1990. Before then, city officials had enjoyed an era of abundance that allowed rapid expansion of city services for more than a decade. "The bottom fell out in 1990," recalled Davis Councilwoman Lois Wolk, noting that as she was about to join the council that year she learned the city was facing a budget deficit of about $2.5 million. The city dealt with that crisis by cutting its budget and by establishing a lighting and landscaping assessment district that initially raised about $1.3 million per year, but was bringing in close to $2 million by the 1994-95 fiscal year. Wolk and her council colleagues faced another tough budget crisis as they prepared the city's 1995-96 budget as a result of a projected $1.2 million deficit. In the end, the council trimmed $1.5 million, the city's deepest spending cuts in 17 years. Programs were eliminated, projects delayed, eight employees laid off and 11 vacant positions purged from the budget.

From time to time, the budget blues gave way to a more cheerful refrain, as local residents opened their pocketbooks or pitched in other ways to help when worthwhile causes caught their eyes. Even the cash-starved county officials occasionally found cause to sing a happy tune, such as the day in October 1992 when Davis broke ground for a bigger, better branch of the county library. The local library was built more than 20 years earlier, with a population of 20,000 in mind. By 1989, more than 21,000 people had library cards, the library was serving a community with a population of about 50,000 people, and Davis was projected to reach 75,000 by the year 2010. The community's per-capital expenditures for library operations was $11.87 in 1989, less than the state average of $13.85. The Davis library had only 10,000 square feet of space, far less room than libraries in many similar communities. In short, the Davis library needed more space.

Finding money to expand the library wasn't going to be easy. The county's budget was already stretched to its limit. The California Legislature wasn't providing enough money for library needs. The county could ask local voters to come up with the needed money, but would have to get a two-thirds vote. Despite the odds, county officials decided on the last option. On Nov. 7, 1989, local voters got their chance to decide the fate of Measure B, a ballot measure that called for a special tax of up to $42 per parcel for the library expansion. It was to raise $4.1 million to cover construction costs and an extra $150,000 per year to handle increased operating costs. The operating funds were to fund Sunday hours, a larger children's room, more children's programs, a modern, automated circulation system, more books, other materials and a public meeting room. Local voters gave the project a ringing endorsement: 7,131 voters, or 78.1 percent, favored Measure B and only 2,002, or 21.9 percent voted against it.

At the same election, the electorate faced Measure A, a tax levy that was a centerpiece of the school district's efforts to refurbish existing schools and build the new schools the community will need as it grows. Once again, the voters came through in a pinch: The final tally showed 6,439, or 70.3 percent, voted for Measure A and only 2,723, or 29.7 percent, opposed it. Passage of Measure A was a godsend to the district, because school officials realized they were heading for a major crisis as the 1980s drew to a close. District officials estimated more than $55 million would be needed. Davis Senior High School needed to be refurbished and expanded. Other schools badly needed renovation work. New elementary schools would have to be built as the community grew. The district already had spent about $7.5 million on building Patwin Elementary School in West Davis.

Despite year after year of taut budgets, the school district could point to important victories. It had managed to retain Fairfield Elementary School, a two-room rural schoolhouse west of town alongside Russell Boulevard that was important to parents who wanted their children to experience education in an old-fashioned, country atmosphere. In the 1970s, the district established Martin Luther King High School for students who needed an alternative to traditional high school academics. In the early 1980s, the district started a Spanish Immersion Program, where learning to speak Spanish fluently was a centerpiece of the whole educational experience. The program began with one class for students in kindergarten and the first grade, but had grown so rapidly that by the 1995-96 school year the district was planning to set aside 20 classes with nearly 600 students for the program, including kids from kindergarten through the sixth grade. The district also expanded its program for gifted students over the years and at the outset of the 1990s added an independent study program that gave participants flexibility to have educational programs suited to individual needs, such as home study, albeit under the on-going supervision of teachers. The district's funding constraints have been eased substantially though the efforts of parent groups, such as music and sports booster groups at Davis High.

Not far from the high school stood Project Playpark, another example of how volunteer effort sometimes could substitute for public funds. Located near the northeast corner of Community Park, the 10,000-square-foot wooden play structure was designed by playground architect Rachel Dougan with help from hundreds of Davis school children. It featured a swinging turtle, slide, maze, swings and a sandbox for toddlers. For older children, there were a multitude of attractions, including a sunken pirate space ship, maze, a tunnel with trap doors, tree house, dinosaur slide, castle with a throne, fire pole and suspension bridge. More than 3,000 people helped build the playground during a five-day period in the spring of 1991. The city donated the space, and donations from individuals and businesses covered the $90,000 cost. According to Volunteer Coordinator Sharon Gamble, the cost would have jumped to about $250,000 if paid workers, rather than volunteers had done the work. Gamble and others got the idea after learning of a similar project in Winters.

Theodore L. Hullar was a man with a mission when he arrived at UCD in 1987. During nearly two decades as chancellor, James Meyer successfully guided UCD through an era of cultural upheaval that shook some campuses to their foundations. More and more students flocked to campus, attracted by its friendly small-town atmosphere. And, quietly, without much fanfare, UCD matured into a top-notch research university. By 1987, though, the campus seemed to be losing momentum. Meyer sensed new leadership was needed, announcing his retirement, effective July 1, 1987. UC officials came to the same conclusion, deciding the time had come to shake up UCD. To replace Meyer, the UC Board of Regents selected Hullar, the 52-year-old chancellor at UC Riverside. The choice was a surprise, because it was unprecedented. Never before had UC officials transferred a chancellor permanently to take over as chancellor at another campus.

Hullar appeared to be the perfect man for the job. People described him as enthusiastic, energetic and decisive. In three years as chancellor at UC Riverside, he had made a big impression. Back in Davis, campus officials quickly grasped that Hullar had big changes in mind for UCD. Shortly after he arrived, he announced plan for adding 7,000 students by the year 2004, an announcement that worried city officials anxious to keep growth under control. He traveled to Moscow, hoping to set up academic exchanges and two conferences with university officials there. By 1991, UCD ranked 18th in research funding among the nation's universities and was named one of the nation's top five up-and-coming universities by U.S. News & World Report. The following year, Hullar decided UCD's sports program should move up from the NCAA's Division II to Division I status without offering scholarships and the medical school was named one of the top five comprehensive medical schools in the country.

Along the way, though, Hullar suffered defeats, and criticism started coming his way. The NCAA rejected his precedent-setting bid to have UCD move up to Division I without offering scholarships. He took heat for spending about $100,000 to have consultants study UCD's image, and even more to renovate his offices in Mrak Hall. The conferences talked about with Russian officials never took place.

In April 1993, the Hullar era ended abruptly. The first sign was an announcement by UC President Jack Peltason that beginning in May Hullar would spend the rest of the year working at UC's Oakland headquarters on a new economic development program aimed at marketing UC inventions to industry. Responsibility for running UCD fell to Executive Vice President Larry Vanderhoef. Peltason said he would get together with Hullar in the fall to decide whether the chancellor should remain in his new job, without saying whether there was any chance Hullar would return to his post at UCD. Back on campus, the consensus was his days running the show at UCD were over. Hullar confirmed the obvious in October 1993, announcing his intent to resign as chancellor, continue in his new job until the following March and then take a leave of absence before returning to UCD as a professor of environmental toxicology. In September 1994, Vanderhoef was installed as the fifth chancellor in UCD's history. The move was greeted on campus, where Vanderhoef had established a widespread reputation as a fair, friendly and down-to-earth administrator.

By 1998, the city's growth was again in the political spotlight, in part because of the city's drawn-out efforts to update the Davis General Plan. Critics charged that new houses were appearing at an alarming pace. "Davis was charming in the '50s and '60s, and is nice today, but is dangerously close to extinction, another town descending steadily into the dismal sprawl of modern suburbia," wrote Jim Mace of Davis in a 1998 letter to the editor. "Why this impulse to build? The small-town atmosphere, so difficult to attain, is suffocating under an oppressive mix of streets, malls, housing and the attending vehicles. The farmland, open space so important to the soul, is giving way to pavement." [5] "I believe that Davis is sick," added Alex Kenefick of Davis in a 1997 letter to the city. "Giant swaths of land all around our town are being developed each and every year." [6] City officials responded by assuring critics that the pace of housing construction would slow down in following years, noting that Covell Center was the last big residential project envisioned in the General Plan before the year 2010, and there was talk about removing it as part of the update process. In March 1998, Yolo County Supervisor Dave Rosenberg, a council member when the 1987 General Plan was adopted, defended the city's growth-control efforts, saying the community was doing a better job than critics realized. Pointing to 1997 housing data from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Rosenberg concluded, "The statistics confirm that Davis has controlled its growth through the 1987 General Plan and has avoided the 4 to 6 percent growth rates experienced by some of its surrounding neighbors." [7]

Continue to Chapter 8...