Commentary: Host Cities Battle University Expansion By KIM STANLEY ROBINSON

Friday April 29, 2005

UC Davis and the City of Davis are like Siamese twins who share one body but have two heads. The interests of the two heads are not always the same. If one wants to grow and the other doesn’t, they’ve got a problem. 

That’s what has happened here. The un iversity’s administration, frustrated by Davis’s commitment to slow growth, decided to build its own town. And when it comes to the UC system, we do not have enough of the checks and balances that elsewhere serve American government so well. 

That this is a structural problem in California law is indicated by the fact that four UC growth plans are presently being sued or challenged by the communities hosting them, with more to follow. The city government of Berkeley brought a CEQA lawsuit against UCB much like West Davis Neighbors’ against UCD. Citizen groups in Merced have filed legal actions against UC Merced, and are planning more; and citizen groups are organizing in Santa Cruz, Irvine, and Santa Barbara to oppose UC growth policies. Berkeley’s govern ment is currently working to set up a task force of UC host cities to act collectively when faced with UC intransigence. All these actions are attempts to get the Regents to respond to local concerns after negotiations failed. 

The negotiations fail so of ten because the Regents feel they don’t really have to compromise. Here in Davis, university administrators keep referring to the 33 meetings they held, but they don’t mention that public objections to their neighborhood grew stronger at every meeting. In their last scheduled meeting, 320 people attended and 75 of them spoke, seventy against the development. Nothing changed. 

UCD’s planned housing development would have added 23,000 car trips a day to Davis’s main east-west street, which is already crowde d. The Davis City Council objected, but UCD ignored the objections and did not change the size or location of their development. 

At that point West Davis Neighbors filed a CEQA lawsuit against the Regents. A three-judge appellate court will make a ruling on the case later this year. 

Ours, however, is no longer the most important case in the matter, if judged by the fiscal impact on Davis residents. The California Supreme Court is currently reviewing a decision in the case City of Marina vs. CSUS, which forbade the CSU system from giving Marina any money to mitigate the environmental impacts of the new school. If the Court upholds the decision, the UC system too will be forbidden to compensate cities for the environmental impacts of new development. 

The UC Regents have made arguments to the Supreme Court asking them to uphold the decision, hoping to achieve that result. 

If that happens, we in Davis will be left to foot the bill for the impacts of a suburban development housing 4,300 people, meaning mil lions of dollars the city does not have. Various university officials say they have discussed payments with city staff and the school board, but these university officials all work for the Regents, who have meanwhile been arguing to the Supreme Court that they should pay nothing to local cities. So the UCD administration may not be able to fulfill any promises they make to us. That’s happened before; UCD officials signed a memorandum of agreement with the city, for instance, promising not to grow abruptly, but with the Regents’ “Tidal Wave 2” they acted as if the memorandum did not exist, making no reference to it. 

Now they are proceeding with their neighborhood before the Supreme Court decides the Marina case, despite the fact that they don’t know if they will be allowed to pay for any of its impacts. Clearly this is fiscally irresponsible, but that may be the point; the Regents appear to believe in strengthening their hand in uncertain legal situations by building first and worrying later. They did it at UC Merced, building before permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were given, hoping to increase their leverage and get their way. You could call the strategy “Build it and they will fund.” 

This would work in Davis too. It is hard otherwise to explain why the university is forging ahead. After all, “Tidal Wave 2,” that sudden new influx of students and faculty, got canceled. The wave is not coming, extra new faculty are not being hired, and the unsolved state budget shortfall makes it unlikely any of that will change soon. It is unclear who would end up buying the 475 homes UCD still plans to build. 

If they build them, 4,300 more people will move to Davis at the same time that Covell Village may be adding a similar amount. That double strain w ill break Davis’s infrastructure. The first two parts to go will be the high school and Russell Boulevard, both already jammed. And the university may be forbidden by law to contribute anything to mitigate their impacts. 

Given this situation, it’s an ope n question why the Davis City Council does not take legal action to defend the town, as the City Council in Berkeley has done. At West Davis Neighbor’s urging they filed an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court, asking the Court to overturn the M arina ruling, but there are many other things they could do as well: warn UCD that annexation depends on moving the footprint north-south; join the other cities now challenging the Regents; join efforts to get the state legislature to pass laws forcing th e Regents to be more responsive to their host cities. They could fight harder for the city’s interests here, and they should. 

Until they do, West Davis Neighbors will continue in every way it can to fill the gap created by the council’s inaction. On April 30 at 7:30 p.m. we will celebrate the effort by hosting a second gala at Bogey’s Books, “Art For Davis 2.” Last year this was a great party, and it was beautiful to see all the art by local artists. It’s one of many ways to continue to defend Davis and the ag fields surrounding it, so come if you can, and urge our City Council members to join our common effort. 

It is hard to imagine the loss of open space before it happens, but I grew up in Orange County and know the experience well. People will be shocked and heartsick when those fields are torn up and replaced by the backside of a housing development. But at that point it will be too late. The time to act is now, before the bulldozers roll, when we and our City Council can still defend the interests of the town and its citizens. 


Kim Stanley Robinson is a fiction writer and Davis resident.›