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Online petition aims to save tiny Wildhorse greenbelt

By From page A1 | July 30, 2014

In the Wildhorse subdivision, on the eastern side of the Haussler house property line that’s marked with tall Canary Island pine trees, a shaded pine needle-strewn path connects pedestrians on Moore Boulevard with East Covell Boulevard.

On approach, squirrels skitter up mid-size deciduous trees lining two sides of the path and the ground crackles with each step. Other than that small noise, it’s an oasis of quiet compared to the sidewalk adjacent to East Covell Boulevard and the sidewalk on Moore, where a steady stream of passing cars lend a suburban slap to the notion of silence.

On the western side, small deciduous trees line both sides of a raised dirt path connecting the two boulevards.

These places of quiet are part of a noisy battle between neighbors on both sides of the horseshoe-shaped greenbelt surrounding the property that once was home to the Haussler family, who were Davis pioneers. An online petition has been circulating on change.org, gathering more than 270 signatures so far to ask the city to develop a clear land use policy denoting when and how a greenbelt may be sold to a developer.

The battle’s last major fight took place at the Davis Planning Commission meeting on May 28.

Then, commissioners recommended approval by an 3-2 vote — with two commissioners absent — of an eight-lot development on the Haussler property and the greenbelts, totaling 0.75 acres. Although the design called for saving four to seven of the tall Canary Island pine trees — at least for a few years in a deed restriction — the neighbors remain steadfast, supporting instead a previous 2009 City Council approval for only four lots in development and questioning whether there are any city policies in place for selling greenbelts.

Although the development team indicated it had been working with the city on the sale of the greenbelts, the city has since said there are no formal negotiations taking place.

Mike Webb, Davis director of community development and sustainability, said any negotiations would be handled by the City Council in the event that the developer’s proposal is approved by the council after it had been recommended by or appealed from the Planning Commission.

Yet, Webb said the developer’s proposal is essentially in limbo at the moment, because the developers, local father-and-son team David and Jason Taormino, are likely to submit a publicly undiscussed alternative proposal to add to two other alternatives, one of which was recommended by the commission and the other which was recommended by city staff.

The upshot is that the matter may return to the commission for another vote if city staff decides it’s necessary, based on the new alternative that could be presented.

The timing of any future City Council action would be purely speculative at this point, Webb indicated.

The development proposal, called Paso Fino, aims to replace the Haussler ranchette with more than four lot adjustments negotiated in 2009 with another local developer, Mark Rutheiser, who now works for UC Davis. The deal fell through. Now, in a different housing market, the Taorminos want to build six to eight homes on the properties occupied by the ranchette and the greenbelts.

According to Bob Wolcott, city principal planner, the Wildhorse horseshoe-shaped greenbelt approvals were done in 1994-95, and were meant to connect pedestrians and bicyclists in the area “consistent with the intent of neighborhood greenbelts.” Wolcott also wrote in an email that the greenbelt was used to additionally provide a buffer between the ranchette and the Wildhorse property.

The term “greenbelt” used to describe the land surrounding the ranchette is more nuanced in city circles than with the Wildhorse neighbors. Webb said the horseshoe greenbelt is a unique situation, not only for the 2009 housing infill deal, but for the shape and placement of the greenbelt as more of a buffer between the ranchette and the subdivision than a traditional greenbelt.

Webb said traditional greenbelts tend to go places and connect things, like various streets within a subdivision. A map of all the greenbelts in Davis shows that while there are several elongated greenbelts, there is only one narrow, horseshoe-shaped greenbelt listed, and that’s the one surrounding the Haussler ranchette.

An Oct. 23, 2013, appraisal of the Haussler property and the adjacent city land for Realtor Steve Boschken valued the city property at $195,700, according to a document obtained through a public records request by one of the neighbors. The Haussler property was valued at $78,000.

Webb stressed there is no city policy in place to sell greenbelts and no other developers are calling for the city to give them part of a greenbelt for infill projects.

Yet according to the minutes of a Nov. 15, 2012, Recreation and Park Commission meeting, a local homeowner on the 200 block of Avocet Avenue offered to buy part of Northstar Park adjacent to his land because it had been poorly maintained by the city. The commission followed city staff’s recommendation and rejected the idea.

While not technically a deal to buy a greenbelt, the offer to buy part of the park represents a dilemma for neighbors surrounding the Haussler ranchette and its greenbelt. According to the change.org petition, the city’s 60 miles of tree-lined greenbelts help make Davis one of the nation’s most livable cities.

“Tell Davis city officials that greenbelt must not be sold in the absence of a clear policy, one that carefully balances the public good with the needs of private developers — and ensures that any greenbelt sale takes place in the open,” it reads. “Sound public policy will help preserve our greenbelts now and for future generations.”

Alan Fernandes, a school board member who lives near the Haussler ranchette, is part of a group of 12 to 20 neighbors and community members who have expressed concern about the Paso Fino development.

While Fernandes has not signed the petition, he visits a Facebook page for concerned residents and the davisgreenbelts.org website. He said the platforms came out of a desire to keep residents and community members like Tree Davis members in touch with one another about information regarding Paso Fino.

“We had talked about organizing on a couple different platforms just to keep us in communication,” he said.

The group has grabbed the attention of the entire City Council. Fernandes said neighbors already have spoken with Councilman Brett Lee, and are due to chat with Councilman Lucas Frerichs at a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday in Wildhorse.

Neighbors will be meeting with Mayor Dan Wolk, Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis and Councilwoman Rochelle Swanson in the coming weeks, Fernandes said.

“We’ve been talking about getting each of the council members to visit and share our concerns about the proposal,” he said, adding that the entire council may have taken notice because the issue, in his opinion, stretches farther than Wildhorse.

“I think the reason is it’s not just a neighborhood issue. … I’m actually more struck by the involvement of non-neighbors.”

— Reach Dave Ryan at [email protected] or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews

Dave Ryan

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