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Turf battle turns another shade of green

Some Calif. cities reconsider bans on artificial grass

MARK J. TERRILL/ASSOCIATED PRESSCookie Smith of Garden Grove, Calif., replaced her lawn (left) with artificial turf to conserve water, but later learned that doing so had violated a city ordinance that bans artificial grass. MARK J. TERRILL/ASSOCIATED PRESSCookie Smith of Garden Grove, Calif., replaced her lawn (left) with artificial turf to conserve water, but later learned that doing so had violated a city ordinance that bans artificial grass. (MARK J. TERRILL/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
By Noaki Schwartz
Associated Press / November 21, 2008
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GARDEN GROVE, Calif. - Cookie Smith was surprised to learn the fake lawn that earned her a home-beautification award violated a city ban on artificial grass.

Her neighbor was shocked when he complied with a state order to conserve water and was instead threatened with a $50 fine for letting his grass wither to a brittle brown.

Such is the dilemma confronting Californians: Water supplies are dwindling, but some cities still require homeowners to maintain lush, green lawns. Other communities forbid artificial turf.

"It's kind of like saying, 'We want you to look like Brooke Shields, but we don't want you to use any makeup,' " Smith said.

Now some cities are reconsidering their lawn laws and exploring alternatives to homes with perfect rectangles of green.

The state's ever-growing population and the threat of a prolonged drought could kill the concept of the traditional lawn in California, where some communities conduct patrols looking for signs that homeowners are lavishing too much water on their lawns or letting it dribble down driveways.

Officials estimate that up to 70 percent of a family's water bill is spent on landscaping.

"Our love affair with the lawn may be coming to an end, because if we're going to support all these people living here and all the homes, we're really going to have to use water-wise designs," said Stephanie Landregan, who heads the landscape architecture program at the University of California at Los Angeles extension. "It's probably closer to our future than most people realize."

Still, many will be reluctant to abandon lawns entirely. Thick carpets of grass have defined the landscape of suburban America for more than a century, and a healthy lawn in this semiarid climate is a status symbol.

Some cities are weighing whether to lift bans on artificial turf that date back to the days when phony grass looked like fluorescent plastic. A few are encouraging the use of native plants once derided as weeds.

Some water districts are offering customers $1 rebates for each square foot of lawn they remove and 30 cents per square foot of fake grass they install.

In Orange County, six cities including Garden Grove are reviewing artificial grass bans. The once-stubby turf has come a long way since its most public debut at the Houston Astrodome in the 1960s. Now it looks and feels more like the real thing.

Smith, who paid about $10,000 for her fake lawn, joined with other homeowners to ask that the bans be overturned after their requests for fake-grass rebates were rejected.

Though the turf is pricey, homeowners who have it save money on water. An estimated 750 square feet of fake grass can conserve about 22,000 gallons of water per year.

Smith, whose $50-a-month water bill is dwarfed by those of her neighbors, called the ban "stupid."

"Not only do you not get a rebate, you're in violation of a city law. And if you don't remove it, the city will have to enforce the ordinance," Smith said.

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