Palo Alto prepares to tighten landscaping rules

City to add restrictions on non-native plans; new permit system for landscape projects

Even during the rare rainy spell, California's prolonged drought remains high on the priority list of Palo Alto officials, who are preparing to adopt tonight new rules governing what type of flora local residents and businesses can plant on their landscapes.

The emergency ordinance would add new efficiency requirements for landscaping projects, including adding a "planting restrictions" requirement that would ban local property owners from using turf or high water-using plants in their landscapes. It would also require at least 80 percent of all plants selected in the landscape to be native plants, low water-using plants or no water-using plants.

Those wishing to avoid the planting restrictions can opt to perform a "water budget calculation," a detailed assessment demonstrating the project's water usage on an annual basis. According to staff, this type of assessment would be typically prepared by a landscape architect.

The new ordinance, which would kick in on Feb. 1, aims to bring the city into compliance with Gov. Jerry Brown's orders to conserve more water in response to the state's ongoing four-year drought. Those cities that don't adopt their own restrictions would, by default, be subject to the 2015 landscaping ordinance adopted by the state. To comply, the city has been working with other agencies in the Bay Area Supply and Conservation Ordinance (a coalition of water agencies that draw its water from the Hetch Hetchy system) to craft a regional ordinance for landscaping.

Palo Alto's proposed law draws heavily from both the state and the regional ordinances but goes further. Unlike the others, it does not have a size requirement for landscaping projects that would have to comply. It simply applies to every project.

The new ordinance would also include evapotranspiration (the total water that undergoes transportation and evaporation) thresholds aimed to reduce the landscape area that could be planted with thirsty species.

For residential projects, the maximum applied water allowance will be lowered from 70 percent of the reference evapotranspiration to 55 percent; for non-residential projects it would be 45 percent, according to a report from the city's Development Services Department.

The new ordinance will also create a new permitting system for landscaping projects, which would be processed separately from building permits. Under the new system, the issuance building permit would trigger the new landscaping-permit requirement. It would allow the property owner to receive a final inspection for a building permit before proceeding to complete the landscaping. One function of such a system, according to staff, is "to provide for a quality customer service experience for project applicants."

Lastly, the new ordinance would create new provisions for use of greywater, untreated waste water that is discharged through bathtubs, washing machines and bathroom wash basins. This option, according to staff, "reduces demands on potable water supplies and decreases the total volume of potable water usage that is factored into the overall site water budget."

According to the report, the ordinance "would continue the City's leadership position in promoting water efficient landscape design."

If the council votes to approve it tonight, it would be implemented on an expedited basis as an "emergency ordinance" and take effect on Feb. 1.

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29 people like this
Posted by Grump Old Guy
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Jan 19, 2016 at 9:51 am

does this mean the creation of Palo Alto Plant Police?
Planting Penalties?
Pansy Violations?
Fern Felony?

3 people like this
Posted by Mike Crescent Park
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 19, 2016 at 10:31 am

The no water-using plant category suggests that the time has arrived for local nurseries to stock large quantities of air ferns.

13 people like this
Posted by Anneke
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 19, 2016 at 11:19 am

Two years ago, we redid our front and back garden. We replaced the grass with plants that can thrive in this climate. The result has been absolutely wonderful. The garden always looks fresh and well take care of it, unlike the grass we had before, which only looks great just after it has just been put in. It is really not difficult to be flexible with what we can plant.

Also, we have become used to saving our grey water. Again, once you do it for six weeks, the routine becomes part of your thinking.

Just remember how blessed we are living in this beautiful climate.

16 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 19, 2016 at 11:23 am

What a joke. Just what the PA bloated bureaucracy needs, landscaping cops to add to it's payrolls. HAHA

15 people like this
Posted by Nancy
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 19, 2016 at 11:28 am

landscaping restrictions seem to be a good and essential move.

but so are implimenting ways of catching, and holding the water we do receive, instead of having it run off into the bay.

~ we need to have swales: The permaculture element that really "holds water" installed all over the city, especially given our clay soil. [note how successfully davis has used swales - providing years of water deep in the earth to water trees.

~ we need to mulch....employ fallen leaves as a topping to prevent run off.

~ we need to use other methods to build sponge-like loamy soil.

~ there must be other ways to reroute the water that is headed down to the bay?

11 people like this
Posted by Ken Archambault
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jan 19, 2016 at 11:29 am

It is about time that cities throughout the U.S. enact native plant ordinances like this one! Commerclal plant nurseries -- even Home Depot, etc. -- push non-native, often invasive plants on unknowing customers. English ivy, Pampas grass, Nandina (with its berries loaded with poisonous cyanide that kills birds), Ice plant, and Eucalpytus trees now are found throughout California. They overtake our native plants and offer little food or shelter for our butterflies and birds. Most Californians are too busy trying to earn a living to care about this eco-disaster. Having this ordinance will help to educate the public. Lower water use and more food and shelter for our native butterflies and birds should result from this plan. Just imagine if every city in California did the same thing.

9 people like this
Posted by Mama
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 19, 2016 at 11:36 am

I think it ok to ask that residences use less water. Most of us are doing it anyway or planning to do it. The joke on us is that we will be using half as much water but what the city charges us will double or triple. Look what's happened to sanitation costs. Thank you, unions!

5 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 19, 2016 at 12:54 pm

One of the greatest mistakes in California's history was the replacement of native plants with plants that are unsuitable to our climate and rain fall. It has seriously damaged the environment, and is responsible for mudslides and for water shortages in a region that is susceptible to serious draughts.

9 people like this
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jan 19, 2016 at 12:57 pm

There won't really be any enforcement. How many gas leaf blowers go off in your neighborhood each week? As soon as the inspection is over the homeowner can rip out the rocks and plant grass. But, since everyone is building such huge houses on such small lots I guess the problem is really moot. There is no room for grass anyway.

1 person likes this
Posted by A Noun E Mus
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Just tax the non native plants 10,000 %. No need for police. Gotta be a high tax or the uber wealthy will buy it anyway (may still but at least the tax).

11 people like this
Posted by leadbyexample
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 19, 2016 at 2:58 pm

Ironically, Palo Alto city went ahead last year and remodeled a few parks mostly by putting new lawn by seed (which requires an enormous amount of water to establish itself). To top it off they overwatered the lawns even during the summer at the tune of their boards saying "Palo Alto saves water". Meanwhile, they were telling Palo Altans to restrict the water usage at home. Lead by example and then people may follow!

14 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 19, 2016 at 3:02 pm

I am very concerned about the unintended consequences of such a overreaching ordinance that addresses the environment in such a simplified way.

Not enough consideration has been given to the unintended consequences of property owners replacing open space
with non permeable pavement and Fake turf. This will not support the soil, insects and native flora & Fauna!

Please city council move very cautiously here. Why were there no community discussions, outreach etc… leading up to this proposed ordinance from staff. Once again no transparency

1 person likes this
Posted by Old but wise
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 19, 2016 at 3:12 pm

I do hope that the Nurseries really get a LOT more suitable plants. I spent a fortune getting the right plants last year. The Raccoons took great pleasure in wrecking many of them, and I will have to replace this year. I am trying to put in an artistic front garden with natural components such as pine cones, stones, logs,shells and some home made decorative slabs. It will have design and be attractive... I will have a few drought resistant plants. Its exciting figuring it all out.

15 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 19, 2016 at 3:58 pm

We have a city owned tree in our front yard. We are expected to water it. We might as well water our lawn over the roots that spread all over our property as well as the bushes, etc.

I can't imagine the city going around to see who has planted a few pansies, etc.

BTW, our lawn and trees keep our home and yard pleasant on hot summer days. Drought resistant landscaping increase the heat in the house and patio. It isn't just shade that is necessary, but green plants that cool the outside areas of a home.

9 people like this
Posted by Outraged
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 19, 2016 at 6:46 pm

So, will schools tear out their grass? Will the parks?
Why in blazes do we need to get a permit for every project?
That isn't going to reduce the red tape at all. How much time, effort, and money is that going to add to everything?

.. or is this a joke ordinance that will be ignored because people won't get permits before they plant because the process is so onerous and idiotic?

23 people like this
Posted by SuperD
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 19, 2016 at 7:19 pm

From what I understand, Palo Alto has decided to draft rules that are even more restrictive than those proposed by the state. Watch our street trees eventually die off because the stonescaped lawns (sans grass) no longer need water...I am all for water conservation, but not at the cost of losing our trees. This proposal needs more review by both City Hall and the Palo Alto community. It's half baked folks...

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 19, 2016 at 8:23 pm

Will you have to have 25% of your new landscape aproved on new construction before you can receive an ocupancy certificate? Can someone please clarify? Does this mean if you want to plant a few tulips you need to get a permit first? What if you are under your usage and are using recycled water? The city is just trying to create more jobs for themselves.

18 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Mom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 20, 2016 at 12:00 am

This is rediculous!!! It's not as simple as only paying for a landscape permit. You have to pay for a landscape architect and submit plans, which aren't cheap. Don't tell me what I can plant in my yard!!! If I have to pay a premium because I go over my alloted water allocation to support the plants I want, I should be able to. Are we going to have a rule for everything in this town dictating how we should live our lives?? Are you installing flushing monitors on my toilets next? The big water users aren't consumers. We barely scratch the surface of water usage overall. You're putting the screws to the wrong folks!!!

9 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 20, 2016 at 1:38 am

It's totally absurd but the $200,000+ Chief Sustainability Officer needs to justify his existence somehow.

Wait until he asks for a huge budget to hire consultants to produce marketing and educational materials akin to the How-to-Compost ads and statement stuffers.

Imagine the glossy color reports Your Plants Are 93% Less Sustainable Than Your Neighbors like the erroneous water usage comparisons.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jan 20, 2016 at 6:30 am

Saving water is a good thing,however,I think Palo Alto oversteped it's authority on this matter,possibly opening itself up for litigation. These are your Zero Waste folks at work, they care more about saving their pensions than saving the environment.

7 people like this
Posted by Joseph E. Davis
a resident of Woodside
on Jan 20, 2016 at 12:47 pm

This is a bad idea. We don't need some low-accountability bureaucrats and politicians managing our gardens.

If anything needs to change, it would be much simpler and fairer to raise the rates for water to balance supply and demand.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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