Jun 12 2012

EDITORIAL: Is Piedmont Local Control for Sale?

Piedmont on the brink of ceding local control for $22,000

On Monday, June 7, the Piedmont Council rethought its plans to give up local control of landscaping rules to a regional agency, StopWaste.org A number of citizens objected to a proposal to conform Piedmont law to a set of rules devised by StopWaste, plus any future rules it decides upon.  The future revisions to Piedmont law could occur without notice to Piedmont residents.

Mayor John Chiang expressed concern about forgoing one-time money of $22,000 offered by StopWaste.  But, the City of Newark, has already declined the offer of money, based on its determination that a one-year grant will not cover the extra staff time and costs on an ongoing basis. The City of Pleasanton has also declined the StopWaste offer.

A principle . . . not just one issue

Whether or not $22,000 covers Piedmont costs, a principle of good governance is at issue:  should the Piedmont Council adopt proposals that give away the local control Piedmont residents rightfully possess . . .  for any price?

Local control has long been a core principle of municipal governance.  In fact, Piedmont was founded due to the desire for local control, and the principle has been valued by Piedmont residents for the last 100 years.

More recently Piedmont has faced encroachments on its ability to determine its own planning-related decisions.   Last year, many new multi-family housing policies were included in the City’s General Plan at the insistence of the State.  While local control might be encroached on, this seems little reason to actively throw it away.

As originally proposed, the StopWaste ordinance would have allowed StopWaste to “change the rules” for Piedmont landscaping at any time in the future.  Without a hearing before the Piedmont City Council,  tomorrow – or the next day – Piedmont residents could have awakened to find new, and very different, mandates governing every home in Piedmont.  Without first having a discussion within the Piedmont community, future rules could increase restrictions, cover smaller landscape projects, or mandate changes to existing landscaping.

Although our local council and community would still have the power to reject new rules after hearings, this places a burden on the city residents and city council to “opt out” of the new rules.  No other Piedmont laws operate on an “opt-out” basis.  This is not a good precedent.  Affirmative consideration of laws before their enactment is a long-standing pillar of democracy.

Some proponents saw no issue in ceding local control, arguing that the initial StopWaste rules “would apply to only a few”.   But this position is problematic when the rules may be broadened in their scope and reach at any time without notice.  And particularly troubling when other proponents are already suggesting the rules should be expanded.

Some residents, perhaps even some City staff, seemed unaware that the proposal would require residents, by law, to follow all future StopWaste rules, not just the 2010 rules presented to the Piedmont Council and residents today.

Piedmont has a successful tradition of voluntary recycling and conservation measures.  Piedmont has the highest recycling rate of any city in Alameda County – without any mandates. Many residents prefer to continue to rely on education and incentives, rather than mandates.

Backdoor Access to Piedmont Laws

A separate issue must also be considered: the lack of any substantive limit to future rule changes.  If rules may be added or changed to enhance water conservation and reduction of greenhouse emissions, the door is opened to rules and restrictions on virtually any planning-related matter.   Some impact on water conservation or greenhouse gases can be shown for every activity.  There is no limiting principle.

Unfortunately, the problem of agreeing in advance to unknown “future rules” may not have been entirely eliminated.  While the Council eliminated the relevant language for Guidelines, it has not yet done so for the “Checklist” or the “ScoreCard“.

Good Governance for Sale?

If local control over Piedmont property rights is freely ceded, ownership of Piedmont property becomes little more than an obligation to pay property taxes.  What, exactly, does ownership consist of, other than control over your own property?

As a matter of principle and good governance, the Piedmont City Council has a responsibility to its residents to preserve local control for its residents to the greatest extent possible.  This means reserving all decisions to the Piedmont City Council  and strictly adhering to the Piedmont City Charter.  (The Charter often provides for a city-wide vote, as well as a council vote, before action is taken.)

While it is possible that Piedmont was left with few good options for the housing element when pressured by the State of California, the current issue involves selling out a fundamental principle of good governance for the de minimus sum of $22,000.

At what price is the idea of ceding local control transformed from a bad idea into a “good” idea?  Is it ever?   Or, if the Council has no problem placing a price on the principle of local control, isn’t $22,000 a bit low?

 Other Cities Going in the Opposite Direction

While Piedmont was on the edge of ceding its local authority, Oceanside and other California cities are working on increasing theirs by becoming Charter cities.  Jessica Levinson of the Center for Governmental Studies is quoted as saying:  “Charter cities have a lot more independence from the state, and I think when elected officials get into municipal office they want to set more of their own laws.  I think this is a trend toward more charter law cities.  In California, 120 of the state’s 480 cities are now charter cities.”  Oceanside has become the latest of 8 San Diego County cities (out of 18) to adopt its own charter.  Levinson noted, “They do have a lot more control.”  Link to article.  The City of Piedmont is a Charter City.

LINK:  StopWaste Proposal

3 Responses to “EDITORIAL: Is Piedmont Local Control for Sale?”

  1. PCA, Your link to the Stop Wast proposal is innacurate. Staff distributed a “redline” version of the ordinance at the meeting on June 9 that will be the basis of the discussion on June 18. There are changes in that version that address several of your criticisms and it contains the correct version of the Bay Area Basics Checklist, the landscape guidelines that will apply to new landscapes in excess of 5000 sq ft in Piedmont. Existing landscapes are not covered by the ordinance.

    The updated ordinance can be obtained from Jennifer Feeley of the Piedmont Planning Department and should be posted on the city’s website by Thursday evening.

    Editors’ Note: Readers are welcome to use “Comments” to add links to relevant new information. PCA often updates articles, as well. A link to the “redline revision” will be added when it becomes available online.

  2. EDITORS’ NOTE: Piedmont’s current City code contains the language at issue in the editorial (which the following comment’s author appears to agree should not be in our code). In four different sections, Chapter 17 refers to the “most recent version” of “guidelines, the Landscaping Point system, Bay Friendly Landscaping Scorecard,” all specifically as developed by “Stopwaste.org”. This language was inserted several years ago at the request of Stopwaste.org. (http://www.ci.piedmont.ca.us/html/city_code/pdf/chapter17.pdf) The proposed language for Bay Friendly Landscaping alterations to Chapter 17 will be revised prior to the June 18 City Council meeting. PCA will alert readers when it is available.

    What’s more frightening, Piedmont gardens making strides toward reducing waste . . . or editorials riddled with falsehoods and scare tactics?

    The author of this editorial, if he or she listened to the conversation between the City Council and Bay-Friendly Senior Program Manager Teresa Eade at the June 4 meeting, would clearly understand these FACTS:

    In future years, the rules could NOT be broadened in scope without the proposal of an entirely new ordinance. Ms. Eade repeatedly encouraged the city to amend the proposed ordinance to address residents’ concerns about being required to adopt “the most recent” BF requirements. Instead she suggested it adopt the “current” policy, thereby eliminating the possibility of more stringent requirements being imposed. Piedmont keeps its Local Control.

    When residents voiced (unfounded) concerns about BF requirements banning lawns and sheared hedges, Ms. Eade assuaged those worries. “Bay-Friendly is not anti-lawn,” she said, continuing that if a family wishes to install a lawn large enough for a volleyball net, Bay-Friendly would support that active use of turf. Acknowledging the common use of sheared hedges in the Piedmont landscape aesthetic, Ms. Eade suggested the city rewrite the ordinance to eliminate language that restricted shearing. Piedmont keeps its Local Control.

    The suggestion that other East Bay cities have rejected adopting the ordinance due to staff time costs is apples to oranges. The city of Newark has a steady flow of newly constructed homes on large lots, which would require added staff time to monitor. Piedmont, on the other hand, has virtually none. (Note: Piedmont’s staff report states “StopWaste.Org has landscape architects on contract who provide design review and Bay-Friendly assessment for free.” Ms. Eade also reported that all other Alameda Counties cities but two have adopted the ordinance, and several chose to lower the threshold for residences to which it would apply.

    But why should Piedmont adopt any level of Bay-Friendly landscaping policy? Because it is incumbent upon the city to reduce its impact on the waste stream . . . and to set standards toward which its residents can strive. More than just conserving water, Bay-Friendly landscaping reduces the air and noise pollution of power tools; keeps pesticides, insecticides, synthetic fertilizers and plastics out of Lake Merritt and the Bay; and reduces the number of garbage truck trips carrying green waste across the county.

    So, Piedmont, stop fretting! Bay-Friendly gardens can:
    – have a lawn
    – have sheared hedges
    – have 25% water-loving plants (plus the lawn)
    – have the remaining 75% of plants from ANYWHERE in the world, as long as they’re happy with occasional water in the summer

    Just work in some compost, lay down 3″ of mulch, have a good irrigation controller and use drip irrigation on areas narrower than 8 feet. That’s it! You’re officially Bay Friendly!

    And what about those plants? Could a Bay-Friendly Piedmont still have beautiful green gardens? Let me just say that, with the 9,000 plants in the new Sunset Western Garden Book, the possibilities are endless.
    EDITORS NOTE: PCA Editors discourage the use of inflammatory terminology during discussions of policy, appreciate corrections, and urge that any factual errors in PCA articles or editorials be identified.

  3. It is interesting that the proponents of this ordinance are going to great lengths to argue that the ordinance, even though essential, will not actually apply to anyone.

    The milder interpretation is that our City Council, as they so often do, are intending only to make a meaningless and toothless “gesture” in response to pressure from , and in order to placate, region-wide activists and nannies who, though themselves small in number, are successfully pressuring local municipalities, one by one, to adopt “bay-friendly” ordinances, or to “stop-waste”, or whatever is the Orwellian phrase of the day.

    My own interpretation is that the proposed ordinance is the first step (soon to be followed by others) to take another bite out of property rights, ceding control of my back yard to unnamed and unaccountable activists; and that the ordinance will over the near term be modified so that it will no longer “apply to nobody” but rather apply to everybody, and will govern landscaping to the last detail, with government employees and fees and exactions to follow commensurate with the City’s increased burden of running everybody’s lives.

    If you disagree, go ahead and try to trim a branch off the tree in front of your house.

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