Catching up on recent council issues

It’s been a busy few months on the council, time to catch up. First some brief notes:

In my last post, I discussed the generous health care benefits previous Albany city councils had approved for themselves. The current council did vote to eliminate the in lieu benefits by the end of the year. However, the council did not eliminate the provision that it is eligible for benefits better than those of the staff. Perhaps that issue will be resolved with the election of a new council next fall.

I had previously written optimistically about a new affordable senior housing project in El Cerrito. My optimism was premature. The project is struggling to find funding, a very common situation with affordable housing developments.

The council voted to sunset the waterfront committee. Although controversial for some, I thought this was an overdue decision. However, I am thankful for the years of diligent work by many Albany citizens who volunteered on the committee. There is an excellent discussion by Damin Esper of the CC Times here, so there is no need repeat his reporting.


Although we did get some rain in the last few weeks, we are still far below average. The last three years have been dry, and there may be more drought years coming.

About a month ago, the drain line under my kitchen sink (new with the house in 1926) became permanently clogged. While I waited a few days for a plumber, I took out the p-trap and replaced it with a 5-gal. bucket, which I emptied into the bathtub. I learned a lot about how much water I was using—the hard way.

Around the house, monitoring your water usage is harder than monitoring electricity usage. That’s because there are no smart water meters. I can easily monitor my solar panel electricity output and electricity usage via my smart meter and the PGE website. But I have to manually read my water meter. This isn’t too hard, at least if your house has a good meter.

Mine is right out on the curb, and is accurate down to about 0.01 cubic feet. There are 7.48 gallons per cubic foot, and 16 cups per gallon, so the meter reads down to 1.2 cups.

It’s tedious, but you don’t have to conduct the following experiments very often: Turn off all sources of water. Read the meter. Go inside the house, flush to toilet, read the meter. Take a shower, read the meter. Wash dishes, read the meter. You get the idea.

To check for any leaks, read the meter late at night. Go to bed. Don’t flush the toilet in the middle of the night. Get up in the morning, read the meter. My house doesn’t leak, which is surprising given much of the plumbing is circa 1926, and that my neighborhood has high water pressure.

I learned that low-flow toilets and shower heads really aren’t. Washing your car isn’t that bad. Hand washing dishes is a joke—stop being compulsive, just put them in the dishwasher, which uses very little water (although it does use electricity, unlike washing by hand). The amount of water we waste waiting for it to get warm is ridiculous.

Smart water meters would be fun, but the reality is that agriculture uses 75-80 percent of California’s water, so the innovation really needs to be there, and it is coming. There are some amazing remote sensing/GPS-based technologies that are already being used. Trouble is that more efficient water delivery systems will require considerable capital investment.

Here are some typical water readings from my house, in gallons, rank-ordered from low to high usage (remember, about 7.5 gallons per cubic foot). I’d be curious to know what reading other Albany residents get:

Flush toilet:                             2.6 gals.

Hose off solar panels:           3.0 gals.

Dishwasher, light cycle:        4.5 gals.

Regular shower (for me):      22.5 gals.

One load of laundry:              26.2 gals.

Wash car:                                30.0 gals.

Long hot shower:                  33.7 gals.

The average household in the U.S. uses 100 gallons of water per person per day. That’s hard to believe, but my house turns out to be pretty average. I am a little discouraged—although I thought I used less water during my plumbing crisis, it wasn’t reflected in my water meter readings. I’ll try to update these figures once I start watering lawn and garden in summer.


The city continues to make slow and steady progress in removing the homeless encampment on the bulb. The background on the city website is worth a quick review (here, here and here). Here is another good summary from Damin Esper from CC Times/Albany Journal, who spoke with City Clerk and PR representative Nicole Almaguer.

The only point I would like to add is that the city is also trimming trees and clearing brush on the bulb to create sight lines so that the police can patrol more easily, and to prevent new camps from being hidden in the bushes.


The council recently authorized $75,000 to continue funding the effort to remove the homeless and find them alternative housing. One issue needs to be clarified about thisthe difference in government jargon between authorization and appropriation.

At the state and federal level, authorization and appropriation are handled by different committees in the house and senate. Many different policy-making committees can authorize spending, but all these amounts must be squared against a budget by appropriations committees. In some instances, money can be authorized but not appropriated.

The Albany City Council is basically an authorizing committee. We vote to approve certain types of funding, up to a certain dollar limit. The city manager acts as the appropriation authority. In most cases the council gives permission for certain type of expenditures, but the city manager maintains discretion day-to-day and month-to-month as to how much of the money is actually spent. It is not the council’s role to micromanage the very diverse and complex tasks of our small city.

As I mentioned above, the council recently authorized up to $75,000 for continued homeless-related services on the bulb. But that does not mean that all the money will be spent any time soon. This is largely due to the unwillingness of some of the homeless on the bulb to take advantage of the programs the city is offering.

Mentally ill and drug-addicted individuals (even more so than the rest of us) put off accepting unpleasant realities for as long as possible. This is not in the interest of the homeless themselves, who would be better served by taking advantage of the opportunities provided for them to find alternative housing. Fortunately, several of them have done so.

The city and its contractor, Berkeley Food and Housing Project, have now rented three apartments in the East Bay and are moving folks from the bulb to these apartments. Special thanks to Albany resident and former chair of the Waterfront committee, Francesco Papalia. Francesco has been coordinating donations of furniture and other household goods for the apartments. He is doing a great job. To contact Francesco, see this Albany Patch article.


Finally, here are some relevant news items about homelessness. Little Albany isn’t going to solve this terrible regional and national problem all by itself. We have to be realistic. Here is a good video about the efforts made in Ventura, CA. As on the bulb, water pollution is a problem for San Jose, too.

For all its efforts, San Francisco has made little progress reducing homelessness in the city. And NYT’s Joe Nocera adds this sad reminder of one of the root causes of the problem in this comment.


On March 5, the council held a special meeting to hear appeals on the P&Z commission’s final approvals for the UC Village mixed-use project. The first appeal had been brought by housing advocates who complained that Albany hadn’t completed a state-mandated review of housing, known as the “housing element.” This appeal was moot by March 5, because the city had completed the element by then, and has begun working on the next housing element as part of the general plan process.

A second appeal had been filed by Albany resident Ed Fields, who had many concerns about the planned unit development (PUD)  aspects of the project. A PUD allows exemptions from local zoning ordinances for big projects. Creating a planned unit development requires the writing of “findings” to justify the need for the PUD. Over the years, I have disagreed with Ed on many issues, but he plays by the rules, does meticulous background research, and presents his arguments coherently.

I wish I could say the same for the audience at the appeal, which consisted of many Occupy the Farm followers, whose behavior was adolescent, disruptive and boorish. Councilmember Marge Atkinson, a former high school teacher, dealt with this with equanimity, due to her long experience with adolescent behavior. Mayor Peggy Thomsen did a great job keeping the meeting under control, although it was difficult at times.

On hand that evening were the city staff, our consulting attorney for land use issues, at least one member of P&Z (a professional in land-use law), and some representatives of the developers. Between them, there was probably a century of planning expertise in the room. So I was very confident by the end of the meeting that city had thoroughly addressed Ed Fields’s technical concerns.

However, I left the meeting feeling sad and disappointed, both for the city and for Ed Fields. Although I disagreed with his technical complaints, Ed’s concerns raised policy issues for the city, and I think, given that we were having the meeting, we could have had a much more thoughtful discussion. If only the audience had permitted it.

In particular, I wished we could have discussed how the city deals with trees, creeks and public space for our graying population—the broader policy issues that were touched on by Ed’s appeal. But these are all on-going concerns, so there will be many more chances to discuss them at future council meetings.


Although the members of Occupy the Farm are probably their own worst enemy when it comes to advocating for sustainable farming and urban farming, these are serious movements, so I wanted to provide some background information.

First, here is an article I wrote about agroecology 11 years ago now (pdf). Much of what I wrote then would now be referred to as “sustainable agriculture.” Agroecology has gotten pretty mixed up with the food sovereignty movement (pdf) and has become less scientific and more overtly political (pdf).

It’s not clear just how much sense agroecology makes from an ecological perspective (here and here). Many serious organizations are working on sustainable and urban farming (here, here and here). This includes UC Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, right here in Albany on the Gill Tract. See letter from CNR Dean Keith Gilless (pdf).

Many urban farming advocates, including OTF, like to talk about urban food deserts. Unfortunately it’s mostly a myth (here, here and here). When it comes to cities where grocery stores are within easy walking distance, SF scores second only to New York City, and Oakland is rated fifth, much higher than Seattle and Portland, which rank in 12th and 13th place.

Finally, on a happy note, Consumer Reports magazine just ranked Sprouts Farmer’s Market, the grocery store planned for the mixed-use project, and the fifth-best in the nation. Trader Joe’s was second, Costco fourth, Whole Foods 15th, and dead last, in 55th place, was Walmart. So I am looking forward to the day when I can return to University Village, where I lived from 1995—2000, and shop right next door at one the better-run grocery chains in the country.