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.