Growing houses

Fifty years ago, UC Davis seized farmland with some of the state’s best soils, but now the university proposes paving over it

The harvested soils of Campbell Ranch stretch from the bike trail near Highway 113 to the hills of the Coast Range.

The harvested soils of Campbell Ranch stretch from the bike trail near Highway 113 to the hills of the Coast Range.

Photo by Jill Wagner

Toward the west on the bike path, shaded by giant walnut trees on the noisy outskirts of Davis, a timeless vista sweeps to the Coast Range rising on the horizon. In late September, the furrowed fields have been harvested, and stubble is sprinkled across the warm, brown earth.

It is a familiar sight for James Campbell, whose family owned this land—bordered by Highway 113, Russell Boulevard and Putah Creek—from the late 19th century until 1951. Campbell’s grandfather, also named James, planted the two-mile row of native black walnut trees in the 1890s.

“We used to run sheep here after harvesting wheat and barley. They fed on the stubble and native fodder. We didn’t waste a thing. Farming can be such a gamble. You have to take advantage wherever you can,” Campbell said. “One thing for sure, though: We were blessed with some of the finest soil anywhere in the world.”

Complex geological forces have shaped the amazingly fertile soil for thousands of years, but time may be running out. In anticipation of an influx of thousands of new students, faculty and staff, the University of California at Davis is considering plans to pave over the land in the course of building tract homes.

Ironically, the UC Board of Regents legally condemned the Campbell farm in 1951 because the university coveted the rich soil for agricultural research. Legally speaking, “condemnation” is part of a process in which the right of eminent domain is exercised and enables a public institution to acquire private property.

Basically, in such situations, the court decides that public use of private property would serve the public better and determines compensation be paid to the property’s owner. Campbell still remembers these events vividly. He said agents acting on behalf of the regents first approached his aunt Antonia to ask whether she’d sell.

“They offered her a ridiculously low price: about $300 an acre, what my grandfather paid for that land in 1916. She was riled up to no end at that value. She turned them down flat,” he recalled.

The regents soon took the Campbells to court. Two trials ensued and dragged on for many months. During the first trial, the Campbells opposed the condemnation and lost. However, at the second, the Campbells won much higher compensation than the regents had offered at the outset.

“Turns out the regents based their valuation on soil north of Russell Boulevard,” Campbell explained. “The judge ordered an independent appraisal and discovered that that soil was inferior to the soil on our property. So, we ended up getting paid more than twice what the regents offered.”

The fertility of the soil on the former Campbell property comes with an ancient, faraway pedigree. Forming the western border of the Sacramento Valley, the Coast Range rises astride the San Andreas fault, at which the Pacific tectonic plate has, for eons, slipped under the North American plate and caused the occasional earthquake. The Coast Range is sea bottom scraped off and built up on the edge of the North American plate.

As local farmer and author Mike Madison said, “Before Montecello Dam was built, creating Lake Berryessa, Putah Creek flooded every few years for eons. Land that would become the Campbell farm is what is known geologically as an alluvial fan, which marks the extent of the floodwaters.” Madison’s book A Sense of Order: The Rural Landscape of Lower Putah Creek was published this year.

The creek carried material that once had formed sea bottom down from the heights of the Coast Range to create well-drained sandy loam. Madison, who also farms land along Russell Boulevard, said he’s jealous of the university for owning the former Campbell farm. “They own soil the equal of any in California. Because, in addition to it being virgin soil, never farmed before settlers arrived a hundred years ago, you have that great drainage,” he said.

The main problem plaguing farmers who own land beyond the Putah Creek alluvial fan, Madison said, is “hardpan,” a layer of clay that can lurk just a few feet below the surface. This virtually impermeable layer prevents water from dissipating down from the surface.

“Within the city of Davis, just across Highway 113, the hardpan is so close to the surface that, during the winter rainy season, water will build up so much pressure that it will crack sidewalks and the concrete slabs prefab homes are built on,” Madison said. On farmland, though, surface-water buildup causes root rot in orchard trees and many types of crops.

In its Yolo County Soil Survey of 1972, the United States Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service determined that the Campbell property consisted of soil types that could support virtually any type of cultivated plant, from orchard trees to grass. So incredibly fertile is this soil that, back in 1905, it almost derailed efforts to locate University Farm (which became UC Davis) in Davis. As debate raged in the California Legislature that year, Eugene W. Hilgard, then dean of the UC College of Agriculture, came out strongly against the Davis site.

He felt University Farm should be located in Alameda County. Hilgard felt that agriculture students, who eventually would be responsible for advising farmers around the state, ought to learn on land that offered a bit of a challenge. Writing about locating University Farm in Davis, Hilgard stated, “It is evidently intended to be land on which any fool can be a farmer, regardless of the real needs of instruction and experimentation.”

Peter J. Shields, chief lobbyist for moving University Farm to Davis, waxed poetic—and, in retrospect, perhaps ironic, considering current UC Davis development plans—when he thanked the Legislature in a 1906 speech for its approval. “How fair is [this land] … covered with a miracle of green and laden with plenty, the winds of her perpetual summer will blow over her fields of perpetual bloom,” he said.

Today, a fascinating and vital array of research projects occupies the former Campbell farm. Jim Jackson, superintendent of the Vegetable Crops Field Headquarters located in the center of the property, said UC Davis agriculture professors take full advantage of the fertile soil and conduct hundreds of long- and short-term research projects.

“The sandy loam here is an ideal situation for the type of crops we’re experimenting with. There’s tons of things going on right now,” he said.

Vegetables being studied on plots scattered around the property currently include tomatoes, celery, asparagus, artichokes, sweet corn, lettuce, broccoli and garlic. Other research projects include almonds, wheat and other orchard and grain crops. In addition, there have been a couple of promising experiments in re-introducing native grasses onto the former Campbell farm.

Jackson believes the key to the property’s successful track record in developing crops that are more abundant, hardy and resistant to pests is the fact that “this is some of the most intensively studied and documented ag land in California.”

The rich knowledge and fertility steeped in this miraculous sandy loam may be lost forever if current UC Davis plans for expansion are approved.

Faced with a massive projected increase of students, which officials anticipate will bring the average student population during three quarters from approximately 22,887 in the 1999-2000 school year to approximately 29,500 by the 2014-2015 school year, UC Davis planners are considering several different development scenarios.

UC Davis planner Carl Mohr has been involved with this process, officially called the Long Range Development Plan, since its inception several years ago. “As far as building on the ag land west of Highway 113 and south of Russell Boulevard, we are still evaluating its viability,” Mohr said.

The university held public workshops last May at which it presented two massive “Neighborhood Alternative” plans for building dorms for students and building housing for faculty and staff on the former Campbell property. Since then, the university has come under fire from community activists and concerned Davis residents.

Noting the alternatives cover either 378.1 acres or 259 acres of the fertile soil with housing for 6,250 or 5,250 residents respectively, Madison, who attended all the workshops, summed up what he described as many citizens’ concerns: “These alternative neighborhood plans are land-wasteful ideas straight out of the 1950s. The planners are kowtowing to the automobile once again. Those subdivisions they are promoting will be 40 percent asphalt. They need to boost that dwelling-unit-per-acre figure, factor out the automobile as much as possible.”

Mohr said that, in response to the criticism, university officials’ thinking has evolved during the summer. He said campus planners are considering alternatives to building on the former Campbell farm.

“That land is still in play, but we’re also looking at alternative scenarios to handle the projected influx,” Mohr said. “It’s a zero-sum game: For every acre we don’t build on that land, we have to find an equivalent acre somewhere else.”

The problem is that few acres of soil on campus land are comparable to the wonderful soil on the Campbell parcel. Since last May, many agricultural researchers have made the value of the land known to planners. As Jackson said, with deliberate understatement, “Moving these long-term research projects would be disruptive.”

Diverse forces and attitudes are driving planners to consider building traditional sprawling subdivisions for faculty and staff and to consider building low-rise student housing on the former Campbell farm. One perceived need has been to build on a scale that’s in keeping with Davis’ small-town ambience.

“We don’t believe high-rises would work here for two reasons,” Mohr said. “With high-rises, we’d have to build so many parking structures that their cost would drive rents in the high-rises out of the affordable range.”

Planners also don’t want to duplicate other schools’ experiences, in which high-density student-housing facilities become a magnet for destructive partying, something planners dubbed the “Isla Vista effect” after the notorious community of UC Santa Barbara students.

Proximity is another consideration making it difficult for the UC Davis planners to let go of the idea of building on the former Campbell land. Since the beginning of the planning process, Mohr said, students, faculty and staff have made clear they want new housing to be close to the core campus, preferably within walking distance.

Current thinking among UC Davis planners is based on the assumption that, with the housing crunch in Davis driving house prices higher and higher, not building west of Highway 113 would mean that most new faculty and staff would have to live elsewhere and commute. But critics contend the university should grow smart, instead of just sprawling out.

“The ideal for 1950s subdivision planners was a car in every garage and a front and backyard for every house,” Madison said. “Do we really need to inflict that outworn model on a 21st-century campus if it means paving over this miraculous soil? Let UCD tap into the cutting-edge research being done by architecture and urban-planning faculty throughout the UC system and come up with alternatives to taking that land out of circulation.”

Madison believes a less land-wasteful plan could be developed to accommodate the anticipated campus population increases by building on vacant land in the core campus east of Highway 113. The key, Madison said, is finding creative ways to build viable high-rises that fulfill UC Davis planners’ goals as stated by John Meyer, vice-chancellor for resource management and planning.

Meyer said, “We want to grow in a way that preserves and enhances the best characteristics of our campus and community. Davis’ college-town character is an asset we don’t want to lose. The campus and the city both benefit when our students, faculty and staff live in and are part of the community.”

Asked what he’d like to see done on the land that was formerly his family’s farm, Campbell said, “They took it for ag research. I don’t think they ought to change their minds now.”