Palo Alto backs away from new landscaping ordinance

City to do more community outreach, consider impacts to plants before returning with revised proposal

Facing criticisms about inadequate outreach to the greater community, Palo Alto officials on Tuesday retreated from a proposal to tighten local landscaping rules and agreed to refine the proposal in the coming months.

The council voted unanimously not to pursue at this time an ordinance proposed by Development Services Department staff that would have required residents with landscaping projects to comply with new "planting restrictions" that prohibit turf and other high water-using plants.

Those who choose not to limit their landscapes predominantly to native plants would have been allowed to submit detailed worksheet prepared by a landscape architect showing how much water the landscape would use. The new ordinance would also create a new permitting process for landscapes, allowing customers to obtain their building permits before proceeding with a separate process for landscapes.

The local ordinance was prompted by a state mandate that all California cities either adopt a local landscaping ordinance or be automatically subject to a state ordinance crafted by the state Department of Water Resources last year. With the deadline to adopt new restrictions fast approaching (the due date is Feb. 1), staff was under a time crunch to get the local ordinance in place, Director of Development Services Peter Pirnejad said.

Palo Alto officials also worked on a regional ordinance with the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), a coalition of agencies that draw water from the Hetch Hetchy system. Ultimately, however, they recommended a proposal that would be more restrictive than the one proposed by the state or the one recommended by BAWSCA.

While all ordinances seek to limit the amount of non-native plants, the state and BAWSCA ordinances limit the restrictions to new landscapes that are at least 500 square feet. For rehabilitated landscapes, the threshold is 2,500 square feet under the state ordinance and 1,000 square feet under the BAWSCA ordinance. The city's ordinance has no thresholds and would apply to any project that requires a building permit (if someone simply wants to replace plants in his or her front yards, it would not apply).

"The only thing we did that was different from BAWSCA was lower (the threshold) so all projects would be required (to comply)," Pirnejad said Tuesday.

The City Council lauded staff's effort in meeting the tight state deadline but ultimately agreed that the ordinance tries to do too much too fast. Council members also echoed the concerns from local environmental groups that the new rules don't adequately consider impacts on the urban forest and local ecosystems.

Catherine Martineau, executive director of the nonprofit group Canopy, urged the council to do more community outreach and consult the city's arborists and landscape experts to improve the ordinance.

"I don't really understand it and I think we need to understand it in order to get buy-in from stakeholders and the community," Martineau said.

Shani Kleinhaus, environmental advocate for the Santa Clara Audubon society, urged the council to launch a broader conversation about building a resilient community in Palo Alto by integrating ecosystem into urban settings. And Hamilton Hitchings, a member of the citizens group working on updating the city's Comprehensive Plan, said he found some portions of the new local ordinance confusing and wondered about its impact on local trees.

"We have a lovely urban forest," Hitchings said. "I hope whatever we do, (the ordinance) will continue to support the trees."

The council agreed and directed staff to spend the next few months reaching out to groups such as Canopy, Acterra, the Audubon Society and other environmental nonprofits. Councilwoman Karen Holman also specified that the new ordinance should specifically reference and integrate concepts from the city's new Urban Forest Master Plan and the soon-to-be-approved parks master plan.

It's important, she said, to consider the landscaping ordinance in the context of those documents to avoid "unintended consequences."

Her colleagues generally agreed that more outreach needs to occur before a local ordinance is approved.

Councilman Eric Filseth said he believes banning lawns in new projects altogether would be too restrictive while Councilman Tom DuBois wondered how limiting landscapes entirely to native plants would affect local nurseries and would it push the city toward plant monocultures.

"Part of the Palo Alto way here is really looking at saving water, for sure, but having a healthy ecosystem at the same time and exploring some of those options," DuBois said. "We're in alignment with our green ideas, but let's also be in alignment with our Urban Forest Master Plan."

The council voted to have staff come back later in the year with a revised proposal. In the mean time, the city would be one of many across California that would be subject to the state ordinance.

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16 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 20, 2016 at 11:17 am

WAY TO GO Revamped Council, another Cockamamie Scheme nipped in the bud.

16 people like this
Posted by Lily
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 20, 2016 at 11:23 am

I am glad the CC, under member Holman's leadership, will have staff and competent experts (Canopy, Urban Foresters, etc) provide input. It is important and positive to not only comply as required with the new State law but improve upon it, adopting our own version in the end. Thank you City Council members.

4 people like this
Posted by Jay Ess
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 20, 2016 at 12:11 pm

hello, I would not worry about the trees. There are under ground aquifers in many parts of the city. Note the ground water coming into new basements.
It is a wise idea to limit watering lawns and to plant plants which need less irrigation. We are not out of the drought yet and may never be. Our population has outgrown the water supply. There's evidence that there have been droughts in the west which last up to 200 years. Read the book "The West Without Water". Scary!

16 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Jan 20, 2016 at 12:58 pm

Sanity prevailed. Good.

12 people like this
Posted by Roger
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 20, 2016 at 1:58 pm

To Councilman Filseth, Lawns should be banned. They use more water than just about any other plant type and they don't support any native, or non-native for that matter, insects except flys and grubs.

To Councilman DuBois, Lawns are as mono-culture as you can get. If you want to see the broad diversity of native plants take a drive to Half Moon Bay and stop in at Yerba Buena Nursery. You will be overwhelmed by the variety. And, as far as local nurseries are concerned, they will get on the native bandwagon when demand is there.

2 people like this
Posted by ced1106
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 20, 2016 at 3:03 pm

California has no native plants anymore, so, imo, that argument is moot. Landscapers should first be encouraged to recommend to clients water-saving plants, including through tax incentives. Palo Alto does have a refund for drought-resistant plants, but, imo, the form's more trouble than it's worth. Make the businesses do the legwork, and they will pass the costs and savings to the consumer. Likewise, place taxes on the sale of water-consuming plants, and use the money to subsidize water projects.

I'd like to know who was responsible for California passing this legislature. I dislike the "stick" approach to what I believe are my personal choices. Personally, I think such landscaping regulations be applied only to governmental and business properties. Individuals should be educated about water use, such as information about how much of their water bill is going towards their plants and not themselves.

Finally, if we really care about water conservation, start thinking about the food you eat. One pound of beef takes "only" 441 gallons to make. You don't have to starve, but cutting back on the calories doesn't require a form to fill out!

11 people like this
Posted by artbuilder
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 20, 2016 at 4:47 pm

the basement de-watering could be used as free water for many uses
as it is now put down the ( storm ) drain

while i have your attention i wanted to thank the city for raising our water rates as a reward for conserving water

12 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 20, 2016 at 7:35 pm

I look forward more well-meaning but poorly thought-out red tape enforced obtusely by our city's army of unaccountable bureaucrats.

25 people like this
Posted by @Roget
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 20, 2016 at 7:54 pm

Our dog likes to poop and pee and on a small patch of grass, we like the convenience of cleaning it up with a plastic bag and a garden hose. We have tried this with artficial turf, it did not work. We are well below our alloted amount of water. The political correctness in Palo Alto has gotten well above nausiating levels. When will the insanity stop.

14 people like this
Posted by I've got the Solution
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 20, 2016 at 8:30 pm

I’ve got the solution to this gardening fiasco. Hear me out!

1. Every property in Palo Alto (residential and commercial) must pay an HOA fee to the city. The fee would be calculated on the total sq. ft. of landscaping space for the entire property (front, sides, and back). The fee collected then would go to hire more city workers who will determine how your property will be landscaped. Nope, no owner input. These city workers would also be responsible to water your property to ensure no over-watering occurs.
2. Now that I have come up with a solution for landscaping Palo Alto, I would like a second tax imposed on all property owners to create more city jobs; indoor water monitors. These monitors will ensure that washing machines and dishwashers are only operated on full loads, the toilets are not over flushed, and they will monitor the length of showers.
3. We will create a new municipal code to determine the length of showers. The length of a shower will be determined on a person’s body weight. The heavier a person, the more time they are allowed in the shower. I am really in favor of this because my indoor water monitor could wash my back.
4. Lastly, I would like to see all city council members wear shirts with all the faces of all council members. The caption would read, “I’m with stupid”

16 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 21, 2016 at 12:16 am

I hope that soon people will begin to notice that all of the required water savings imposed by the state have not returned a single drop to the natural environment. These draconian laws that want to take away an individuals right to enjoy their property do not help the environment. Governor Brown is on record stating that California can add another 10 million people to the state and he is allowing more water to go to areas with more development. Taking away existing water supplies from residents already here and handing them over to developers is what this is all about. Landscaping provides for the natural environment. The birds, insects, small mammals are all being driven out by massive housing and no open spaces with lawns, bushes and trees. California is one of the most polluted and degraded states in the nation. Stop letting the government destroy our quality of life by restricting outside watering. You know it will just move inside, then on to other controlling measures. If Palo Alto cuts water use it should all be returned to the natural environment and none for any additional development. If we are in such dire straits that we have to rip out our lawns, carry buckets and sponge bathe than there should be a growth moratorium. I haven't seen word one about stopping development. That would not only save water but take the pressure off of roads, schools, and other infrastructure needs that are collapsing under the pressure of unregulated development.

4 people like this
Posted by slap in the face
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 21, 2016 at 6:20 am

The City of Palo Alto is absolutely destroying the
environment- the urban environment, the neighborhood environment- in a sickening downward
spiral. But the staff wants to exceed the State drought landscape standards,they latch onto this, in a cynical slap in the face of the residents in light of everything else going on here and the City's complete disregard the last 15 years.That is where the discussion should have started at the Council meeting to deal with and confront head-on the hypocrisy and inconsistency which this proposal represents in this City. As a sidelight it is also amazing that the State landscape mandates do not include restrictions and requirements pertaining to dewatering for basements where Palo Alto is the poster child for
that issue- it must be the building and developer lobby at work.

4 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 21, 2016 at 6:24 pm

SteveU is a registered user.

Don't forget that they will raise our water rates AGAIN, to pay for the mandated savings.

2 people like this
Posted by here, here
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 21, 2016 at 9:41 pm

Very glad to see the Council came to their senses on this one. But dismayed that not a word is being spoken about reducing or eliminating the vast corporate lawns throughout the Stanford Research Park -- up and down California Avenue as well as the Page Mill/Hanover corridor where our beloved HP is the absolute worst offender. Instead of sticking homeowners with burdensome regulations, perhaps the City should mandate a little corporate conscience?

Like this comment
Posted by Jane
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 22, 2016 at 9:51 am

My understanding is that Stanford uses recycled "grey" water for all of its landscaping, including the Research Park.

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

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