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Artificial Grass Policies Confuse Orange County Residents, Conflicts with Need to Conserve Water

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Orange County cities review ban on fake grass
Residents seek to reverse policies, saying rules conflict with water district rebates for faux lawns.

By Paloma Esquivel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 9, 2008

Jean Orban thought she had found a simple solution to her green grass quandary.

The Garden Grove resident considered having a healthy, pretty lawn the mark of being a good neighbor — plus, residents who let their lawns go brown can be fined by the city. But she wanted to spare her husband the Sunday morning ritual of mowing the lawn, and she thought it was a waste to use hundreds of gallons of water to keep the grass thriving.

So she had an artificial lawn installed. The blanket of bright green that stretches from her patio to the street always looks freshly mowed, and her water bill is about the price of a couple of bottles of Dasani.

Alas, Garden Grove doesn’t share Orban’s affection for her fake lawn. As she soon discovered, the city bans artificial turf. Although the city has yet to take any action against her, others who installed the lawns said they were warned that they will be fined.

And that regulation puts the city at odds with the Orange County Municipal Water District, which offers rebates to those who install faux grass.

“We want people to change their behavior and use more water-efficient products for landscaping,” water district spokeswoman Darcy Burke said of the rebates.

Because of the ban, Orban was denied her $300 rebate.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said of Garden Grove’s mandate. “Our governor says we need to save water.”

Garden Grove is one of five cities in Orange County — the others are Stanton, La Palma, Orange and Santa Ana — that for years have barred residents from putting in fake lawns. Although most of the resistance has to do with the look of fake grass — particularly the older imitations — there have also been concerns over the level of lead found in some artificial grass. A U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report focusing on athletic fields concluded, however, that young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in newer artificial turf fields.

Officials with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts in the region, said they didn’t know of any cities outside Orange County that ban fake lawns.

In Garden Grove, Orban isn’t the only one baffled by the ban.

“It never occurred to me that in a state that has an extreme water shortage . . . every city wouldn’t do everything they possibly could to save water,” said Cookie Smith, a Garden Grove resident who is leading efforts to get the city’s ban lifted. She may be gaining some traction: Two months into a state-declared drought, officials in the cities where artificial grass is prohibited are reconsidering the ban.

The yard in front of Smith’s pink-trimmed home is a deep, dark mat of luscious green that’s not quite the usual color seen during Southern California summers. A year ago, her lawn was named one of the best in the city, she said. She still doesn’t know if those who picked it knew it was fake.

Smith likes to describe herself as a child of the 1960s, by which she means she doesn’t accept direction without question — especially when she believes it’s a bureaucrat telling her she can’t do something
because it’s policy.

When she was told that Garden Grove didn’t allow artificial lawns because they weren’t aesthetically pleasing, she prepared to fight.

“We need to do something,” she told neighbors. “I’ll go ahead and take the state and national level. . . . I know some people on the City Council here.”

Smith and others wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for help. They contacted their congressional representatives and their county supervisor. They went to the City Council and the media.

Thanks in large part to their efforts, cities that tightly regulate the aesthetics of neighborhood yards are starting to reconsider whether artificial lawns really are a blight.

In Santa Ana, for instance, the city code says that “turf or acceptable dry climate ground cover is allowed in the frontyard,” Planning Manager Karen Haluza said.

For years, that was interpreted to exclude artificial lawns, but city staff is revisiting the regulation.

“Given today’s circumstances, I think we would make the interpretation that ‘dry climate ground cover’ would include artificial turf,” Haluza said. The city is developing guidelines to regulate the lawns, she said.

La Palma calls for exactly “70% of the frontyard” to be planted, which effectively prohibits artificial turf in that area, Community Development Director John Di Mario said.

City staff is looking into changes that would allow fake grass, but those adjustments would have to be approved by the City Council. In the meantime, the city is not actively enforcing the ban, he said.

In Orange, officials said the code needs to be amended to specifically address artificial lawns.

“We don’t prohibit them, but nothing in the zoning code specifically allows them,” said Ed Knight, assistant planning director.

In Garden Grove, an ordinance banning simulated greenery dates from 1992.

At the time, even its biggest supporters said artificial turf tended to resemble neon green motel room carpeting.

The outlandishly faux look in the 1990s drove officials to prohibit the lawns, officials said.

Garden Grove’s code is exhaustively detailed when it comes to what is and isn’t attractive in a lawn. It requires all “unpaved areas” to be planted and specifically prohibits “synthetic ground covers” and even artificial plants.

The city takes aesthetics seriously but water shortages are forcing a new look at mandated greenery, Garden Grove Mayor William Dalton said. The City Council met recently to reconsider the ban but has yet to make a decision. In the meantime, it has asked staff to refrain from enforcing the ban.

“We’re in a drought,” Dalton said. “Alternatives make a lot of sense.”

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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