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Editorial

A less green Orange

Water-wise cities can be just as appealing, a lesson the city of Orange -- and others -- should learn.

March 04, 2010

The remarkable charm of the city of Orange, whose Old Towne is the largest district on the National Register of Historic Places in California, is the result of its steadfast refusal to change with the times. Walking through its 140-year-old central plaza or strolling nearby neighborhoods with their immaculate Craftsman bungalows, it's easy to feel you've been sucked into a time warp.

Of course, as residents Quan and Angelina Ha discovered, living in a time warp can have its drawbacks.

Realizing that their front lawn was soaking up tens of thousands of gallons of water, the Has did the environmentally responsible thing and tore it out in 2008. With the state in the midst of a prolonged drought at the time, some cities were encouraging residents to replace their lawns -- but not Orange. The Has were in violation of a city ordinance requiring that at least 40% of a house's frontyard be landscaped predominantly with live plants. After being cited, the Has spread wood chips, built a wooden fence and, last summer, planted drought-tolerant greenery. Unappeased, city officials charged the Has with a misdemeanor and ordered them to appear in court Tuesday, though after Times staff writer Amina Khan chronicled the Has' travails, they said the case would be dropped. That would be wise, but it would be wiser still for city leaders to revisit the landscaping law.

Although El NiƱo-fueled storms have ended the drought for now, anyone who has lived in California for long knows the good times won't last. Population increases combined with a changing climate are expected to worsen water shortages in the future, which is why the Legislature passed a law last year mandating a 20% cut in per capita urban water use by 2020. Cities should be rewarding residents who help them achieve this goal, not taking them to court.

Orange, unfortunately, isn't the only city living in the past. Times columnist Steve Lopez has described the woes of environmentally conscious homeowners in Glendale, which requires at least 52% of frontyards to be landscaped. Homeowners associations, meanwhile, are an even bigger problem than cities, with some actually forbidding landscaping with drought-tolerant plants.

It's understandable that cities and homeowner groups would want to maintain high neighborhood standards, which in turn maintain high property values. But the days when arid Southern California could support endless acres of lush green lawns are over; what's more, it's possible to landscape with native plants in ways that actually enhance home values and neighborhood aesthetics rather than harming them. A water-wiser Orange would still have appeal.

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