A 'swale' solution: Los Altos council amends shoulder policy, requires only permeable materials

Responding to residents who turned up to protest the approval of the proposed Street Shoulder Improvement Policy requiring asphalt or concrete swales, the Los Altos City Council Nov. 27 amended the practice to include only permeable options.

In 2016, the council directed city staff to review the policy – last updated in 2001 – to incorporate green structures and address aesthetic concerns voiced by the city’s Environmental Commission.

Under the direction of Public Works Director Susanna Chan, staff developed a revised policy to propose to the council. The proposal faced criticism from residents, who opposed the call for 3-foot-wide swales and their lack of rural character, patchwork implementation, possible complications to stormwater drainage and the lack of stormwater benefits. Many of the same concerns were stated at a study session held Sept. 25.

Proposed changes

Between 2016 and 2018, staff conducted eight meetings over a period of 20 months and retained an environmental and engineering consultant firm to draft an analysis. The firm’s report suggested retaining the asphalt concrete drainage swale, allowing permeable materials for use in parking areas and requiring installation of a green infrastructure such as a rain garden or bioswale.

Despite the analysis, city staff did not accept the recommendations.

At the study session, Environmental commissioners Don Weiden and Don Bray asked the council to consider keeping the asphalt swale but requiring a rain garden, into which the excess water could primarily drain instead of continuing down the road into storm drains. The council directed staff to include the commissioners’ request in the proposal, which would require compliance on all street shoulders of newly constructed homes or residences in which 50 percent or greater of the square footage is remodeled. Streets that are 36 feet or wider are exempt.

‘Greener, greener, greener’

Despite that olive branch from the commissioners, more than 20 people contested the proposal at the Nov. 27 council meeting. Their primary concern continued to be the inclusion of an asphalt swale and the damage it would allegedly add to both the atmosphere and traffic in Los Altos.

GreenTown Los Altos member Kevin O’Reilly explained that he had researched the composition of asphalt. The binding paste – the chemical bitumen – degrades over time and leaves the asphalt feeling pebble-like and gray. It seeps into the ground with other pollutants.

“I’m sure that we can find another swale solution that doesn’t add to the problem,” O’Reilly said.

By the time Los Altos resident Teresa Morris spoke, many had already communicated what she planned to say. However, she used her time at the microphone to drive home the bigger issue of asphalt heating contributing to global warming.

“The more we hardscape and put in concrete, be it permeable or asphalt, the more we increase the temperature of our planet,” Morris said. “We need to look at any way in which we can work the system to make it greener, greener, greener.”

Outgoing Mayor Jean Mordo suggested continuing the item and leaving it for the next council to consider, but Councilwoman Jan Pepper made a motion that the policy require permeable material. When city staff studied surfaces to allow in permeable parking areas and swales, they listed compacted aggregate base and decomposed granite as examples.

Pepper’s motion passed 4-1, with Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins dissenting because of her concerns with the policy’s leaving the initial cost and annual maintenance of permeable materials up to the homeowner.

Compensation debate

In the original agenda for their Nov. 27 meeting, council members were scheduled to address compensation ranges and benefits for nonrepresented city employees, after the Sunnyvale-based consulting firm Koff & Associates delivered the findings of a market study it conducted.

The item was rescheduled to a 6 p.m. closed-session meeting the evening before, according to an email sent by Deputy City Clerk Sarah Henricks at 5:31 p.m. Nov. 26.

Speculation arose that the closed meeting would address compensation ranges and benefits for city department heads, the employees likely making some of the highest salaries. This was not the case, however, as the salaries and benefits under consideration are for nonrepresented employees who do not fall into that category.

The city of Los Altos hired Koff & Associates to conduct a market study on the total compensation (salary and benefits) for nonrepresented employees – those not covered by any other entity, such as a union. The market study compares multiple nearby cities and what compensation they are willing and able to offer their nonrepresented employees. The study indicated that “certain adjustments” should be made to the benefits package for the group, according to the staff report for the item.

There is no public indication of how benefits would be altered, but it was noted by staff that changes would be made so that the city could “remain competitive in the marketplace.” For example, that may mean giving a raise to an employee whose counterpart in Mountain View or Palo Alto earns more, as an incentive to retain the employee.

No date has been set for the discussion of the possible package increases.

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