News - May 5, 2010

Menlo landscaping ordinance passes with little controversy

by Sean Howell

After spending months sweating over an ordinance regulating water use in landscaping for single-family residences, Menlo Park's City Council unanimously approved the substance of the law at its April 27 meeting.

The process of drafting the law, a modification of a state ordinance that went into effect at the beginning of the year requiring certain water-efficient landscaping techniques, inspired hours of argument and head-scratching on the dais over the three meetings in which the council discussed it. It was even detailed in a New York Times article that featured a photo of Councilman John Boyle standing in his spacious back yard, opposing a provision that could restrict lawn size, under the headline: "Water Conservation Could Limit Suburban Lawns."

But despite all the hubbub, the final ordinance in most essentials hews close to the state law already in place. It's not as restrictive as the ordinance developed by the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), or the one originally proposed by city management. And it does not, in fact, limit lawn size — a provision that Mr. Boyle and city staff now maintain was optional all along.

Menlo Park's law diverges from the state's in that it covers about four-fifths of the city's single-family residences, leaving out smaller parcels, while the state's applied to about one-half. While the state's law sets predetermined water-use limits, the city's does not. Instead, it requires homeowners to choose most of their landscaping from a list of low-water-use plants.

The city's law, which supersedes the state's, would also require covers for new spas and pools.

Homeowners would only have to begin complying with the ordinance if and when they apply to the city for new construction, new water service, or other projects, and only if irrigated landscaping work is part of the project.

Will the ordinance decrease residential water use? It's tough to say. The city hasn't estimated how much water would be saved, and won't enforce the law beyond reviewing initial landscaping plans.

Rick Ciardella, a local landscape architect and recent council candidate, said in an interview that he believes the state law will force the landscaping industry to employ more conservation-minded practices.

"The basic thing for me is that it forces the industry to produce plant material that's suitable for the California landscape," he said in an interview. "In five years, you're gonna walk down to Roger Reynolds and they're only gonna have low- and medium-water-use plants. The number of high-water-use plants is gonna be very small."

Mr. Ciardella successfully lobbied council members, separately and in private, to not apply the ordinance to smaller properties, to schedule annual check-ups on the cost to homeowners and amount of water saved, and to cut several minor provisions that he said were unnecessarily burdensome.

Like the state's, the city's law requires plants with similar water needs to be grouped together, mandates sensors that shut off sprinklers when they detect moisture, prohibits sprinklers from running between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and requires irrigation systems to be "70 percent efficient."

The vote was not entirely free of contention. Mr. Boyle asked to qualify language requiring people to agree to certain maintenance measures, saying he didn't want to encourage lawsuits between neighbors over weeding and mulching schedules. The council agreed to soften the language, though not without some debate and one very audible sigh of frustration.

The ordinance must still clear a procedural vote at a later council meeting.


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