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Reducing Runoff a Home at a Time


Remodeling a home is usually a messy process. Sawdust, torn out kitchens and baths and missing roof sections are the norm.

Beth and Joseph Digati's experience last summer was no exception. But to compound their disruption, they had to contend with a 4-by-4-by-4-foot hole, complete with trenches, in their front lawn.

The reason: a 1992 ordinance enacted by the Santa Monica City Council requiring drainage systems in new building and major remodels to reduce urban runoff, a combination of pet waste, oil and other contaminants that washes from streets, lawns and driveways into storm drains that eventually reaches the ocean.

Joe Digati, a musician and teacher, has lived in Santa Monica for 25 years. He wanted to double the square footage of his two-bedroom, one-bath home, built in the '40s, adding a second story with two more bedrooms and another bath on the 42-by-160-foot lot.

Geoff Collins, the architect Digati hired, has designed projects in Santa Monica, Venice and other beach communities. He was six months into the project when he found out about the law.

"This was the last department for finalizing the plans," Collins said. "It was, 'Oh, by the way.' "

The aside cost the Digatis $2,500 for a requirement of which they had no knowledge. It meant more time and money for permits and forgoing other planned improvements.

No one involved in the project, including general contractor David Foster of Foster Projects and plumbing contractor Bret Harrison, owner of Coastal Pacific Plumbing & Heating, had ever come across the requirement.

"It was an 11th-hour plan-check correction," said Foster, who has been in the business for 31 years and has remodeled other homes in the city.

Harrison, who had not included the pit in his bid, was annoyed that his client was going to have to deal with additional costs, time, hassle and extra inspections.

"I've done a lot of projects in Santa Monica and was never required to do this before," he says.

To satisfy the urban runoff ordinance, the homeowners had to build a seepage pit, or drywell, lined with a geotextile cloth membrane, resembling burlap, and filled with 1 1/2-to-2-inch gravel pieces. Ontario was the closest place Harrison could find that size gravel. It took two trips to truck it back.

Why does the city have this requirement? The deaths of four Santa Monica lifeguards from leukemia in the early '90s was a motivating factor behind the ordinance, according to Gordon Labedz, chairman of the Southern California chapter of the Sierra Club and then active with Santa Monica-based environmental group Heal the Bay.

"This was the start of the movement to clean up Santa Monica Bay. Heal the Bay knew that sewage treatment and urban runoff are major sources of beach pollution," he said.

Santa Monica has always been proactive on environmental issues.

"The city realizes the beaches are important, and that we need to take care of urban runoff," says Neal Shapiro, coordinator of urban runoff programs for the city of Santa Monica. Good housekeeping practices such as curtailing the use of fertilizers and picking up after pets help.

Under Chapter 7.10 of the Santa Monica Municipal Code, an approved method of addressing urban runoff is required for any construction project where there is an existing structure or building that has been damaged, needs repair or the owner wants to alter, repair or rehab more than 50% of it. And an urban runoff mitigation plan must be submitted to the city for approval as part of the remodeling project.

The ordinance was amended in November to increases the amount of rainwater harvested or treated to 3/4 inch of the first 24 hours of a storm. The first rainfall runoff is often the dirtiest because it picks up contaminants that may have been building up for months.

Digati, Collins, Foster and Harrison all agree with the intent of the ordinance.

"There is almost no other place I'd live where I would go through this," Digati said. "But they want me to take my rainwater and make Perrier."

Digati said he feels the ordinance is a Band-Aid measure because it's applicable only to new developments or major remodeling.

"Presumably everyone will remodel at some time and there will be complete compliance, though it may take awhile," Shapiro said.

Digati is also concerned about the well's effect on tree roots in the frontyard. According to Harrison, the city first suggested using wood planks to keep the tree roots away from the pit. But tree roots naturally gravitate toward a water source, and termites and moisture rot wood planks.

"When the tree roots grow, and if they interfere with the seepage pit, Digati must dig up his lawn again, and pay the expense to remedy the situation," Harrison said.

The homeowners had to sign a release saying they will maintain the drywell, also an ordinance requirement. According to Harrison, this means they'll have to dig up the front lawn each year to comply.

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