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GARDEN : TRENDS

The lawn arm of the law

So, you've got that global citizen glow and want to make your frontyard more eco-friendly. But the final say in your plans may not be yours.

September 06, 2008|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Keeping that thick, verdant blanket of grass watered in these dog days of summer is about as economical and conservation-minded an enterprise as gassing up the family SUV for the weekly commute or a long-distance vacation. It costs a bundle, and pretty soon you have to do it all over again.

But before yanking out the Marathon and replacing it with concrete or AstroTurf, it's best to check out the myriad landscaping rules, regulations and ordinances individual municipalities enforce. Just because Los Angeles homeowners can put, pour or plant nearly anything in their frontyards doesn't mean Long Beach residents can too.

Equally confounding is that some cities are promoting water conservation, while still requiring that yards be at least half grass. Officials are scrambling to catch up with a conservation movement that many of its residents already have embraced.

"It's hard, because changing the zoning ordinances is a long process," said Jesse Brown, assistant planner for Burbank. "It can take a year and needs City Council approval."

Add to that the different philosophies among city planning departments, and headaches are born.

"We have almost no regulations whatsoever," said Michael O'Brien, a planning associate for Los Angeles.

"If you want to plant a drought-tolerant garden, you can," said Glendale's Neighborhood Services Administrator Sam Engle. "As long as you follow the guidelines."

And therein lies the rub, or shrub, if you will: If you're going Sahara, check in first with local government.

Longtime Burbank homeowners Margie and Louis Dell had Laramee Haynes do the checking for them. The Pasadena landscaper told the couple that they could implement their drought-tolerant design, which included pebbles and recycled concrete, as long as they met the city's requirement that no more than 45% of their front- and street-facing yards be hard-scaped.

He tore out their tired turf and replaced it with flowering paprika yarrow, lilac verbena, red California fuchsia, deer grass and oak trees, all anchored by redwood mulch. Window planters are filled with succulents.

The driveway, once a solid mass of concrete, now is made of pebbles and broken recycled concrete. A brook filled with recycled water flows through the backyard and spills into a pond stuffed with goldfish that feed on mosquitoes and algae.

The Dells got fired up to make the changes after attending a Burbank water conservation workshop.

A trip to the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, where a botanist explained drought-tolerant landscaping, sealed the deal. The nonprofit organization promotes native gardens and offers more than 300 varieties of native plants for sale.

"Our neighbors love our garden," Margie Dell said of her new landscaping, which requires watering only twice a year. "They want to know how to do it."

Jim Brophy's neighbors had a different reaction when he ripped out the expansive front lawn of his new home and went native in the Park Estates neighborhood of Long Beach about 18 months ago.

After learning about the benefits of water conservation, he planted manzanita shrubs, a palo verde tree, rosemary, Russian sage and other native species, which provide color year-round and require limited water. He's reduced yard clippings, he said, and is proud that with no edging or mowing, he's doing his part to cut down on the use of fossil fuels.

His neighbors, however, haven't shared his enthusiasm.

"The homeowners association said that I hadn't talked it up to the board, and at an open house I attended, I heard remarks that my yard was weird and ugly," Brophy said.

"The irony is that people visiting the house for sale next door to me now stop by my house and tell me they love my garden. They want to know who did it and how."

In Long Beach, a sustainability commission has been created to focus on new landscaping standards that may permit more hardscape, said Craig Beck, director of Long Beach Development Services.

Currently, the rules vary by neighborhood, he said, but lawn is required on a fair-sized portion of residential properties.

"We don't want 100% hardscaping, because we're big on open space here," Beck said. "But we do encourage environmental responsibility, and we will encourage more drought-tolerant landscaping with native plants."

To find out about your city's landscaping and lawn-watering rules, visit city websites and click on the links to planning or community development departments.

Here is a sampler of some Southland cities' regulations:

Los Angeles: There are some landscaping rules, but they're "scattered all over the zoning codes," L.A. City Planning associate O'Brien said. Owners of single-family homes can pretty much do as they please; the city regulates properties with duplexes and larger residential dwellings, which have different rules. Historic Preservation Overlay Zones have their own rules governing landscaping.

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