Chris DeCardy reflects on his eight years on Menlo Park’s Environment Quality Commission
Recently, I ended two terms on Menlo Park’s Environmental Quality Commission. I wanted to serve to ensure the environmental amenities of our town — trees and clean air and water — are respected and enhanced, and that our inevitable growth and development are managed thoughtfully. What I didn’t expect has been the opportunity to see, again and again, neighbors — volunteers, citizen activists, business owners and government leaders — doing their best to thoughtfully, collectively serve the community.
Here is an example. One role the EQC plays is advising the City Council on disagreements among neighbors about removing mature, sometimes iconic, trees on private property. We’ve had rainy Tuesday nights when 40 or 50 neighbors still showed up to take part in a review hearing, which included property owners on why they believe a tree needs to come down, from the city arborist with the assessment of the tree’s condition, and sometimes a dozen or more comments from others who are concerned.
People care and people get mad — and there is often no ‘right’ answer. It is a good lesson in humility to realize it is your responsibility to interpret the city’s heritage tree policy and to do that consistently. Bringing down a tree can be the difference in hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements an owner can make to their property. And, of course, bringing down every tree would leave all property much less valuable — with shade, beauty and habitat (think of our gorgeous old oaks) gone.
One lasting memory will be of a resident involved in a review who ended up on the losing side. She took a minute before leaving to thank us, the commissioners, for our service and the time and care we took in doing our job. Who does that? It was a wonderful gesture, and I hope I have been able to pay it forward.
This year the City Council is reviewing the heritage tree policy. It’s important that the policy — many years old — is updated so decisions are faster, that it is applied equally and that it is enforceable. A clearer, stronger policy would go a long way toward limiting friction among neighbors and frustration with city government.
Another important role for the EQC is advising the City Council on appropriate targets for reducing climate change pollution, which in our town is mostly from the energy to heat and cool buildings or fuel vehicles. The EQC helped provide key information and potential options as the Council adopted its first ever climate emission reduction target in 2013. The goal was a 27 percent reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels and, since then, the EQC has played an important role in encouraging specific building and development policies to be successful.
My role on EQC helped me realize that what I found to be dedicated and thoughtful city staff responsible for development and transportation simply don’t have enough capacity for all of the needs and opportunities in front of our community for addressing climate change. Fellow commissioner Mitch Slomiak and I determined to help. We organized and launched a community initiative called Menlo Spark to foster partnership among government, business and residents; procure best practices from other towns; and conduct specific analyses to give the city more timely and targeted information about options on important policies under consideration. In the past five years, Menlo Spark and its supporters have helped advance clean energy, green building standards and many other sustainability measures that have virtually assured that, at least for now, that 2020 goal is within reach.
That’s good news. This progress also shows our city is ready and able to continue on a path to future growth that not only reduces climate change emissions, but eliminates it. The next step is for our City Council to build on this success and put in place a strong next phase target for 2025.
Serving on the EQC has taken time — late nights, some weekends — and, sure, it can be frustrating and hard to work when members of the community are at loggerheads. But, more than that, serving has deepened my connection to neighbors, sparked me to try to do more across the community, and been a welcome antidote to cynicism about government bodies, which permeates the national political discussion these days.
So, if you want renewed faith in democracy, serve. Apply for a vacant seat, on EQC or any other commission. Get to know and work with city staff. Mostly, get to learn from and be impressed by the commitment and passion of your neighbors.
Menlo Park resident Chris DeCardy served on the Environmental Quality Commission for eight years.