Bay Area communities are taking aim at a beloved fixture of suburban domesticity: the lawn.
In an increasingly thirsty landscape, officials are drafting new laws that prohibit homeowners from installing a vast blanket of verdant grass – the sentimental site for pet and childhood play. Existing grass is safe, but the new rules to conserve water would restrict lawn size for new homes and new lawn-and-garden projects to as little as one-quarter of a home's overall landscaping. More turf is allowed only if homeowners do the math to prove they are conserving in other areas.
For a 2,000-square-foot yard, that's 500 square feet of grass – about the size of a two-car garage. While roomy enough for a tidy picnic, it's hardly good for tossing a football, chasing a dog or playing a rousing game of croquet.
Lawn-lovers resist the uprooting, saying that freshly clipped grass feels good, smells good and looks good – adding to curb appeal and property values.
But cities and counties say they don't have a choice – they need to reduce water consumption. Half of all of the water local residents use gets poured into the ground, they say.
Starting this month, as California watches the skies during a third year of drought, the state requires that all communities comply with a state water conservation ordinance. Enacted in 2006, it requires high-efficiency toilets and appliances in new construction and restricts water use on gardens.
But Bay Area cities like Menlo Park and San Jose are drawing up tougher laws that are creating the biggest outcry.
"We have a 2 year old, a 3 year old and will be getting a German shepherd – and they all need a place to run and roll around," said Catherine Carlton of Menlo Park, who is installing new landscaping – including 1,000 square feet of grass – at her Sharon Park home but escaped the new rules because her plans were approved by the city last year.
"I understand why we need to conserve, but this is a quality of life issue. There need to be alternatives," such as leniency in using "gray water'' recycling, she said.
Menlo Park is the furthest along among local communities, with its draft water conservation landscaping regulations heading to public debate at the end of the month. San Jose will hold public hearings on its model in the next several months.
Not everyone is on board. Menlo Park Councilman John Boyle, a venture capitalist who a decade ago installed a big lawn for his three children, supports water conservation but says his city's proposal – which limits lawn sizes, prohibits grass on steep slopes and restricts watering to 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. – is unfair and divisive.
The restrictions could discourage residents from renovating their yards, if it means they end up with the puniest lawn on the block, he said. "You end up with a situation where one person has a big lawn they can play on – and their neighbor doesn't."
"It takes private property rights away from homeowners," he said. He said he'll seek conservation through a tiered billing approach, so heavy users pay more, rather than blanket restrictions.
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