The fountain at Ken Genser Square in front of City Hall reflects the sunset. (File photo)

Council has passed an amendment to a Santa Monica’s water neutrality ordinance that will close loopholes used by developers to bypass water restrictions.

The original ordinance, which went into effect last July, prevents new development from adding to the overall demand for water in Santa Monica. The rules mandate new projects use the same amount of water as the original development, on average, based on the five years before new construction or renovation.

However, the original ordinance only applied to projects that demolished more than 50 percent of a building and some developers were demolishing slightly less than half of a building to get around it. Others were removing the roofs of structures to add more stories without demolishing parts of the building.

The amendment City Council approved Tuesday requires any renovation or development that adds plumbing fixtures to a structure to comply with the ordinance. Fewer developers will be able to skirt the ordinance in order to use more water.

“We were missing a lot of new developments,” said chief sustainability officer Dean Kubani.

Stabilizing the demand for water as more developers build new projects is a key part of the City’s plan to, by 2020, reduce water usage by 20 percent and only use water collected in Santa Monica.

The ordinance also applies to new or enlarged pools, spas, water features and ponds, and the council added irrigation systems to that list Tuesday.

If a new project must increase a site’s water demand, developers can pay a fee to a City fund used to reduce new water demand citywide. 100 percent affordable housing projects pay half the usual fee, and certain small properties do not have to pay the fee.

“It can be a significant burden on small properties to pay that fee, and they’re small water users,” said Councilmember Terry O’Day.

Any construction or renovation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) will also be exempt from paying the fee if the property it is located on is below the water conservation threshold, staff said.

The exemptions for small properties and ADUs are meant to make it easier for developers to create new housing, O’Day said. He added he thinks the ordinance should not impose too much of a burden on developers because they could choose to build less efficient housing elsewhere.

“The reality is we’re in a regional and state water crisis, and this ordinance is myopic and focused on our own city,” O’Day said. “Every unit built here doesn’t get built in the Inland Empire with a great big lawn that’s irrigated with Colorado River water is a unit that’s already inherently much more efficient, especially if it’s a multi-family dwelling.”

Staff reviewed 220 permit applications between July 2017 and 2018, 183 of which were subject to the ordinance. 60 of those were pool and spa permits.

The projects created 1,838,159 gallons per year of new water demand – enough to cover a football field in a little more than 4 feet of water.

Of the 90 projects that created new water demand, 60 chose to pay a fee to the City’s Water Neutrality Direct Install Program, which installs water-saving toilets, showerheads and faucets throughout the city. Only 11 complied by retrofitting plumbing fixtures, and 19 have yet to be approved.

The City will inform residents and building professionals about the changes to the ordinance on Dec. 18 and 19 and launch a customer service website to streamline communication and permit processing in January.


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