Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 8, 2010

Water-conservation plan meets with skepticism

Palo Alto landscaping ordinance would limit turf areas, require more native plants

by Gennady Sheyner

A proposal by Palo Alto's Utilities Department to save water by shrinking the size of people's lawns was greeted with skepticism from the city's Utilities Advisory Commission Wednesday night.

The ordinance, drafted by the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), would apply to landscaping projects in which the overall irrigated area is 1,000 square feet or larger. Single-family homes and non-residential projects would be included.

The ordinance would limit the turf area allowed to 25 percent of the irrigated landscape. It would also require at least 80 percent of the plants in non-turf landscape to be native plants or plants that use little or no water.

In both cases, an applicant could alternately develop and commit to a water budget.

All landscapes greater than 5,000 square feet would require irrigation meters.

The city's utilities staff proposed adopting the ordinance and tying it to the city's Green Building Program. Applicants would be required to meet the new water-efficiency guidelines in order to receive building permits.

The commission did not vote on the proposal Wednesday night and is scheduled to continue its discussion in February. But several utilities commissioners argued that the program would be too onerous and would apply to too few projects.

Chair John Melton observed that some of the residents who participate in the Green Building Program only wish to renovate a kitchen or a bathroom. Requiring these applicants to replace their landscapes just because of the size of their properties struck him as unfair, he said.

"To have them fall under the landscape ordinance when they're not doing anything to their landscapes just doesn't make sense," Melton said.

Commissioner Steve Eglash agreed and said it would take "hundreds of years for (the ordinance) to affect a proper number of residents."

The Green Building Ordinance only had 86 applicants in the past year, though that number is expected to spike in future years.

"I think we'll make a mistake as a city if we imagine that this ordinance will be the foundation of how we'll encourage people to use water more efficiency," Eglash said.

The ordinance discussion was prompted by a new California law that requires cities to adopt more stringent water standards for new landscape construction and rehabilitation projects. Under Assembly Bill 1881, cities that don't create their own water-efficiency plans would automatically adopt the state's "Model Ordinance" Jan. 1.

But BAWSCA's requirements would be even more stringent than the state's. The state ordinance only applies to landscapes of 2,500 square feet or more in new and rehabilitation projects.

Staff from the utilities department argued that the program would enable the city to comply with the state law and, at the same time, promote the city's goal of water conservation.

The city's proposed ordinance would split projects into two tiers, based on their size.

Applicants whose landscape size is above the 2,500-square-foot limit would need to submit a special landscape and irrigation plan prepared by a licensed landscape professional. Those with landscapes smaller than 2,500 square feet would be allowed to create their own checklist.

Vice Chair Asher Waldfogel suggested coming up with a program that affects more people but has a smaller impact on each. The state requires the city's water-efficiency ordinances to be "at least as effective as" the state's Model Ordinance. This broad directive gives Palo Alto great flexibility on how to achieve greater water efficiency, Waldfogel said.

"I'd like to see us cast a wider but shallower net," he said. "Rather than placing an onerous compliance burden, I'd like to see us take an approach where we try to get even a percent out of a broader net, other than setting a fairly complex and perpetual obligation on a few.

"It strikes me as very unfair to single out just a few people."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

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