Viewpoint - January 27, 2010

Guest opinion: First, do no harm

by Michael Lambert

After reading the staff report circulated in December regarding "Water Efficient Landscaping" that will be discussed at the Jan. 26 City Council meeting, I hope that city staff and council members take the phrase "first, do no harm" to heart.

These days, we are buried in "conventional wisdom" and "political correctness" and too often do not consider the unintended consequences of our actions. Countless times I have heard local politicians say their goal is of protecting our "quality of life."

Despite this, our city and other public agencies at times erode rather than protect our "quality of life," most often with "politically correct" ordinances and administration.

A major part of our "quality of life" is keeping Menlo Park an affordable place to live. And for the homeowner, it is the freedom to make his or her home their castle, with the freedom to create and care for their own environment.

Unfortunately, if the city staff and City Council have their way, how you design and maintain your landscaping will be a matter requiring conformity to a litany of municipal code requirements at a significant added cost to the homeowner, including time and costs for plan check and building permits, for landscape architects, irrigation design consultants, not to mention the deed restriction that will need to be filed at the county. And when you think that you have spent enough, you have the cost of an irrigation audit performed by a certified irrigation consultant every five years. And, then there are the costs of enforcement, a city cost, and potential fines.

Amazingly, when asked to do outreach on this item, the city staff consulted with our water service providers. Because this will become a new burden for homeowners, it probably makes more sense to schedule a meeting with interested homeowners to inform and field their concerns before enacting such an onerous ordinance.

How do we currently discourage excessive water use? It is the tiered water rate program that is currently employed by our water providers and approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Unit water costs increase the more water you use. If you don't use water prudently, you will see some seriously expensive water bills.

In this case I think the better approach is the carrot rather than the stick. Most everyone wants to do the right thing; it is an inherent human quality. Perhaps education and incentives are the answer. With sponsorship from landscape designers, contractors and perhaps even Sunset magazine, quarterly classes at the city's recreation center could be offered in fundamental landscape and irrigation design, with emphasis on better water management. Another possible incentive: The city could waive or reduce the cost of building permits and inspection fees for landscape projects that conform to an elective water management standard.

Think about it. Should the city be the adversary or the partner?

Mike Lambert is a Menlo Park architect.


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