Almanac

News - October 19, 2011

Lawyer hired to fight plan for water well

• Menlo Park plan riles neighbors.

by Sandy Brundage

Attorney Craig Breon, a Portola Valley native and conservationist, now represents a group of neighbors living near Nealon Park, the proposed site of a city well to irrigate the private Sharon Heights Golf and Country Club.

"We are spending time and money on this because we think the proposed project is poor public policy and sets a bad precedent," said JoAnne Wilkes, who lives near the park. "Water is a limited, public resource. The project would allocate this valuable public resource largely to a non-essential, private use."

She said she's been waiting for the city to answer questions about the plan for more than a month. Citing lack of disclosure as a chief reason for hiring the attorney, Ms. Wilkes raised concerns about the project possibly skipping both the Planning Commission and a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review before reaching the council this fall.

Mr. Breon wrote the City Council on Oct. 11 stating he'd filed an extensive public records request because of the lack of detailed information and environmental review forthcoming from the city.

The list of 20 questions in his records request includes asking about the proposed pipeline route; the club's yearly water consumption and how much it pays; and how much the city has spent researching the well and whether the club is covering the cost of staff time.

The attorney's request also asks why a report in 2006 showed the club using 78 million gallons of water per year, while the country club recently told the city it uses 60 million.

Saying the city's current "frequently asked questions" document on the project "barely scratched the surface of the issues," he is asking for a more detailed response to be posted on the city website, along with an outline of the public process for the project, before the plan reaches a commission or the council.

"In a previous document, city staff noted that they would be taking comment until September 30th. However, without a detailed staff report and some form of CEQA documentation, the public can hardly be expected to provide the informed comments needed for such a significant decision," the attorney wrote.

The club wants to pay for the well and a pipeline to water its golf course, which could also irrigate three city parks and a school. The project would save the club money by switching to groundwater for irrigation instead of using potable Hetch Hetchy water, but what the Menlo Park gets out of the deal remains unclear.

The city held an informational meeting on Aug. 24 that raised more questions than it answered. Matt Oscamou, the city's interim engineering manager, said that every aspect of the project, including construction cost and the direction of pipeline alignments between the park and club, had to be factored in before calculating any type of financial numbers. The city would also need to negotiate an agreement for the club to cover ongoing maintenance costs.

City staff suggested the proposal could help the city meet the state's mandate to cut water consumption 20 percent by 2020 by saving about 60 million gallons of Hetch Hetchy water annually. However, residents said the proposal only changes the source of water, not the amount used.

On Sept. 22, Mr. Oscamou said staff continued to evaluate elements of the project and gather information that would be released to the public.

The well would be located in front of the tennis courts facing Middle Avenue, within a 10-foot by 30-foot area enclosed by screens designed to match the court fences, according to city engineering staff. They estimated construction would take six to nine months, and need one week of 24/7 drilling, which didn't appease the neighbors.

"Two wells at Hillview Middle School were used to water the golf course in 1960s. Why aren't those wells being re-tapped?" asked Elizabeth Houck, who also supported hiring Mr. Breon. "In Palo Alto if you want to do something with a public park, it has to go to a vote of the people. It's not like that in Menlo Park. Do not use a precious natural resource for a non-essential use."

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