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Water conservation remains a priority at City Hall, as the council has approved several changes to municipal code recently with an eye toward water savings.

Changes have been made to water meter requirements for affordable housing units and the city has revised rules for landscaping to encourage conservation.

At their Nov. 10 meeting, council took three actions related to revising water meters.

First, council approved changes to the code requiring individual meters for projects of less than six units and sub meters for larger projects. Second, council approved a discounted water rate for affordable housing projects that were previously exempt from the individual meter requirements. Third council approved $84,000 a year to cover the new subsidy.

Santa Monica has required individual water meters in new multifamily construction since 1990. However, a separate city code requires those meters be placed in a public right of way such as an alley. Staff said the two codes create a conflict, as the public space is frequently too small to accommodate multiple meters. The old code also exempted affordable housing projects from the requirement.

The new rules still require individual city owned meters for projects of six or fewer meters. However, large projects will install a single city owned master meter and individual units will have privately owned sub meters. Landlords will be responsible for paying the master meter bill and it will be up to the property manager/landlord to decide how they use the submeter information.

Part of the new rules remove the exemption for affordable housing projects. To offset the increased cost of installing submeters, a new discounted water rate has been established for units in 100 percent affordable housing projects. Those units will receive a discount of $1 per cubic foot, similar to the rate currently charged to single-family affordable projects.

State law prohibits ratepayers from covering the cost of the discount so council was required to approve a transfer of $84,000 per year from the general fund to cover the cost.

Council approved the changes unanimously but questions were raised about enforcement of the new rules.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich asked how the rules would impact inclusionary housing that is mandated as part of a larger, market rate development and asked if submetering those units would enable landlords to pass through costs to those units.

Staff said pending legislation at the state level will address landlord tenant interactions and that the city is monitoring that effort to understand how it will apply to local residents. However, if a unit is deed restricted affordable housing, those landlords would be prohibited from passing through water costs.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis had a similar question, asking if staff had considered the long term implications of giving individual water usage to landlords and what the landlord might do with that information.

“Is there some concern that a landlord may see a particular unit is using a lot of water, which, of course, is then driving up the landlord’s water bill, and providing the landlord with an incentive to either, for lack of a better term, harass a tenant into using less water or try to get that tenant to leave?”

City attorney Marsha Moutrie said her office will look into those concerns and return to the council with additional information.

She said a general provision of the city’s anti-harassment law might apply to the situation but that most of the complaints her office receives are from tenants who object to the landlord dividing the building’s water bill equally among tenants. She said many tenants complain that they are being unfairly charged for water wasting neighbors.

“I think those tenants would actually be happier about individual water meters in their building, so that cuts both ways,” she said.

Action on water meters followed previous revisions to landscaping rules.

Santa Monica has banned sprinklers for all new developments and prohibited new sprinkler systems for existing landscape. New projects for commercial properties are also prohibited from using high water use plants, such as turf. New residential properties can use high water plants, including turf, in no more than 20 percent of the total landscaping. Residents can have some landscaping but the total cumulative area of high and moderate water plants must not exceed 40 percent of total landscaping.

Some exemptions exist for public and private spaces for sports fields, active play areas and public gathering spaces.

According to the Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE), landscape rebates have been expanded. Money is available to help capture rainwater and rebates are available for specialized landscaping.

“Landscape Rebates include up to $4,500 for turf and sprinkler removal; up to $1,500 for replacing turf on parkways with climate appropriate plants; from $200 – $2,000 for installing rain barrels or cisterns as part of a rain harvesting system; $1,000 for installing rain gardens or rock gardens; and up to $40 per downspout for redirecting water from gutters,” said an OSE press release. “Rebates can total up to $8,000 or more per property. Businesses, HOAs and apartment buildings may be eligible for additional rebate funding.”

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