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Orange officials sue couple who removed their lawn

City codes require that live landscaping cover 40% of the yard. Quan and Angelina Ha say their water use has dropped 80% since they replaced the grass with wood chips and drought-tolerant plants.

March 02, 2010|By Amina Khan
  • Angelina and Quan Ha walk through their frontyard with daughter Zella. After the city informed them that their property was not up to code, they added bark, fencing and drought-tolerant plants.
Angelina and Quan Ha walk through their frontyard with daughter Zella.… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

Some Southern California cities fine residents for watering their lawns too much during droughts.

But in Orange, officials are locked in a legal battle with a couple accused of violating city ordinances for removing their lawn in an attempt to save water.

The dispute began two years ago, when Quan and Angelina Ha tore out the grass in their frontyard. In drought-plagued Southern California, the couple said, the lush grass had been soaking up tens of thousands of gallons of water -- and hundreds of dollars -- each year.

They said they were trying to do something good for the environment.

"We've got a newborn, so we want to start worrying about her future," said Quan Ha, an information technology manager for Kelley Blue Book.

But city officials told the Has they were violating several city laws that require residents to cover significant portions of their frontyards with live ground cover. On Tuesday, the couple is scheduled to appear in Orange County Superior Court to challenge the city's lawsuit against them.

Soon after the city complained about the yard, the Has placed wood chips on top of the dirt, with help from neighbor Dennis Cleek.

"It's their yard, it's not overgrown with weeds, it's not an eyesore," said Cleek, whose own yard boasts fruit trees. "We should be able to have our yards look the way we want them to."

But city officials determined the fix was not acceptable, saying city codes require that 40% of the yard be landscaped predominantly with live plants.

"Compliance, that's all we've ever wanted," said Senior Assistant City Atty. Wayne Winthers.

Last summer, the couple tried to appease the city by building a fence around the yard and planting drought-tolerant greenery -- lavender, rosemary, horsetail and pittosporum, among others.

They sent a photo of the yard to city officials in October. But according to the city, their landscaping still did not comply with city standards.

"They put up a nice fence, but [the photo] didn't show anything about how they had complied with code, as far as the frontyard goes," Winthers said, "nor did it include a site plan."

At the end of January, the Has received a letter saying they had been charged with a misdemeanor violation and must appear in court.

"It's just funny that we pay our taxes to the city and the city is now prosecuting us with our own money," Quan Ha said. "Doesn't it waste funds to go back and forth in court, rather than sending pictures, e-mails and having phone conversations?"

Winthers said he hopes the city can work out a compromise. "We know times are tough, but we're willing to work with them, we'd be more than happy to," he said.

Meanwhile, the couple said they had reduced their water usage from 299,221 gallons in 2007 to 58,348 gallons in 2009.

amina.khan@latimes.com

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