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Santa Monica Water 'Neutrality' Law Begins with Trickle of Doubts
By Niki Cervantes
July 17, 2017 -- Can a city, especially one scarred by drought, embrace significant increases in population and new development without dipping deeper into a troubled water supply?
The City of Santa Monica began testing that equation this month with a law limiting water use for new residential and commercial development to the existing level of use, which is the lowest since the 1990s ("Santa Monica Launches Program to Cap Water Use," June 14, 2017).
Santa Monica’s ordinance wades into waters being explored by similar laws in other California cities, including Lompoc, Morro Bay, Napa and St. Helena in San Luis Obispo County and water districts in Cambria, Monterey and Soquel Creek.
The City’s law, which went into effect July 1, caps water usage for new developments to the historical five-year average for the site and applies to everything from housing and offices to enlarged pools, spas, water features and ponds.
“We listened to our constituents and experts in order to craft something bold and effective to help ensure there is plenty of water for future generations of Santa Monicans,” Kim O’Cain, the City’s senior sustainability analyst, said after the City Council adopted the law in May.
Not long after the ordinance became effective, questions began to surface about whether developers could sidestep its requirements.
The issue is closely related to worries by the slow-growth community about City plans to continue new building -- up to 3.2 million square feet in downtown alone -- in an area already mostly built out and suffering from congestion.
In a letter to the City Council last week, Santa Monica resident Stephanie Furlong accused the council of favoring developers over residents "at the expense of our most precious resource -- water."
She cited an article in a locl news blog followed by the city’s slow-growth network that called the new law “a huge give away to developers” because it allows them to pay fees if they can’t conserve enough water, thus exceeding the cap.
The law is questionable, critics say, when it comes to determining average five-year use for a site that radically changes uses.
A key example is the nearly three-acre site at 4th/5th and Arizona, which is now primarily composed of two banks and parking but is being considered for a 12-story, 357,000-square-foot hotel/mixed-use project downtown.
According to the City, a new building can exceed the limits of its site, but must pay for the additional water use to be offset elsewhere in the community.
All projects in plan check, or that had received a building permit before June 30, are exempted from the new law.
For builders who fall under the ordinance, the City said a consultant will provide design assistance about water saving devices and systems, such as grey water systems, recirculating hot water systems, irrigation systems and high efficiency toilets.
“All developers will be required to use these calculators, so they can not invent outcomes that benefit them,” said Dean Kubani, who is the City’s chief sustainability officer and assistant director of the public works department.
The demand for water must be offset prior to the development being approved, Kubani said.
New buildings that potentially need far more water than the existing site are compared with similar buildings elsewhere, he said.
Using such a measuring stick is a “reasonable and achievable standard” which helps protect the City from litigation seeking to invalidate the entire ordinance, Kubani said.
He also said the in-lieu fee covers the actual cost to “offset the water demand generated by a new development.”
For example, if a new developer is going to exceed the cap on water use for a project, the developer is required -- before being allowed to build -- to pay for efficiency changes, like better toilets, at older buildings.
The new law, said City Manager Rick Cole, sets a higher standard for developers in helping communities combat dry times and looming issues such as climate change.
“Far from being a “giveaway” to developers, Santa Monica is one of the first jurisdictions in all of California to go beyond this standard,” Cole said.
“The goal of the new ordinance is to eliminate increased demand by new development over the parcel baseline,” he said.
Cole, who has tangled slow-growth advocates over development, said the water law is new and thus “not perfect.”
“We welcome critical scrutiny and suggestions about how to fine-tune our approach for maximum effectiveness” of the water ordinance, he said.
Cole said concerns raised by at least one news source that develpers will be allowed to exceed the cap by paying fees “do not appear to be a well-intentioned effort to seek improvements.”
Instead, he said, those concerns are “a deliberate effort to discredit a major step forward for the environment and meeting Santa Monica’s ambitious goal of eliminating reliance on imported water.”
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