Escondido Village residents mobilize to postpone herbicide spray

Aug. 9, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

A group of Escondido Village (EV) residents have successfully delayed the proposed treatment of EV family courtyard lawns with herbicides. The plan, which would have seen the grass in all seven family courtyards sprayed with weed-killer today, is now postponed indefinitely.

The family courtyards, home to around 250 families, underwent a renovation financed by John Arrillaga three and a half years ago, when all the existing grass was dug up and replaced.

According to an email sent to family courtyard subletters, the herbicide spray was necessary to “maintain the donor’s gift.”

However, Stanford Housing is adamant that Arrillaga was never involved in the decision to treat the family courtyards with herbicides.

“John Arrillaga has nothing to do with this,” said Michael VanFossen, senior associate director of graduate housing. “Colony [Housing’s landscaping contractor] brought the weeds to our attention, saying, ‘We have done the best we can over the last three or four years not introducing chemicals, but [the weeds] are really getting bad.’”

Since the renovation, landscaping staff have been weeding the family courtyards by hand.

However, the crabgrass and clover had grown to the point where Colony felt they no longer were fulfilling their landscaping contract with the University, which requires them to perform “high-quality grounds/landscape maintenance.” Both Colony and Housing had agreed that herbicidal treatment was the best way to satisfy their agreement.

The herbicides proposed for use in the family courtyards are SpeedZone and Turflon, whose material safety data sheets categorize them as hazardous to health when inhaled. To prevent this, Housing requested that family courtyard residents stay indoors and seal their windows for 48 hours while the chemicals dry.

“I thought it was a ludicrous idea,” said Nitzan Waisberg, a professor at the design school and family courtyard resident. “It’s mid-August, hot, and expecting people to keep their windows and doors shut in apartments that don’t have air conditioning or proper ventilation except for windows… it was not a practical idea.”

Additionally, many EV residents in the summer are subletters and did not receive the email notifying them of the spray and the necessary precautions to protect themselves and their families from the toxic effects.

“I was going to flier the entire neighborhood to ensure everyone [knows about the spray],” VanFossen said. “We only know who the [original] subletters are.”

Many residents, however, were not convinced Housing was doing enough to consider the potential adverse effects of the herbicide. At a hastily-convened town hall last week, several families expressed a lack of confidence that the fliers would be adequate and were concerned about the long-lasting health effects of the chemicals.

VanFossen, insisted, however, that the herbicides were safe.

“Within four hours the chemical is absorbed within the plant, and what little bit is not is dried,” he said. “To find more information I did reach out to others, and I was surprised to hear ‘Yes, we use Turflon. We use this.’”

In a follow-up email, VanFossen clarified that he consulted multiple times with Colony and received information from the herbicide makers, PBI/Gordon and Dow AgroSciences. In these consultations, he searched for feasible environmental or non-chemical alternatives but was unable to find any.

Yet a number of residents pointed out that they personally didn’t see any need to treat the grass in the family courtyards. “What’s wrong with clover fields?” one resident asked.

According to Waisberg, at the core of the disagreement is the conflicting set of values between the University and some EV tenants.

“The EV community is essentially youngish people, and the values that we have today are increasingly sustainable. We clean our houses with nontoxic things… we buy organic vegetables,” she said. “And we have this older value system of how things look, this artificial ideal of living in a golf course community, with all the things that come with it, like intense herbicide use.”

To resolve the situation, VanFossen has delayed the grass maintenance to investigate other solutions and get feedback from residents.

“I wanted to rectify an issue that I felt like was the right thing to do: to better manage the landscape in the family courtyards,” VanFossen said. “I sent to [residents] all the information I had, heard very clearly from the families that it was not the right approach to take and now we’re going to rethink this.”

Housing’s handling of the situation was generally well received.

“I think Housing was responsive, they were professional, they were pretty good about taking care of communication,” said James Redfield, a second-year graduate student in religious studies. “I just think it was more of a conflict between the needs of the parents and residents, and the needs of the University as an institution, which has other priorities.”

For now, the grass in the family courtyards will remain as is until Housing and family courtyard residents decide how to proceed. According to VanFossen, any treatment, which would take place during school holidays, might have to wait until spring, when the weather is likely to be more cooperative.

Edward Ngai is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, he has worked as a news desk editor, staff development editor and columnist. He was president and editor-in-chief of The Daily for Vol. 244 (2013-2014). Edward is a junior from Vancouver, Canada studying political science. This summer, he is the Daniel Pearl Memorial Intern at the Wall Street Journal.

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