The DWP has been encouraging L.A. residents to replace thirsty lawns with drought-tolerant plants for several years now; the utility company even began offering rebates last year to further prod L.A. residents into reconsidering their landscaping. Homeowners are offered $1.00 for every square foot of grass in their yard or parkway (the strip of city-owned land between sidewalk and street) they replace with low-water-use plants.
Granada Hills resident Kris Schmidt, however, wasn't eligible for a rebate. An early adopter, he had already torn out his lawn well before the program began—three springtimes ago—replacing it with low-water plants and California natives such as California Black Sage, Wooly Blue Curls, Hummingbird Sage, California Yarrow, Deer Grass, and California Poppies.
For all of his trouble, Schmidt has enjoyed substantial water savings—and received a violation notice from the City of Los Angeles.
Schmidt had recently done some tree trimming and had left those branches he couldn't fit into his green bin stacked in his front yard for several days before paying a tree service to chip and remove them, so he initially thought the violation was in regard to the branches, which were gone before the notice arrived. But a representative of the Bureau of Street Services set him straight.
"I couldn't believe that it would actually be about having drought resistant plants. I called them and said, 'I don't understand what this violation is for.' They said, basically, you have to remove the vegetation from your parkway, and remove it to ground level, and the only permissible things in there are sand, gravel, grass, and with a special permit, you can put stepping stones. Trees are okay, but bushes are not."
The stated reasoning behind the city policy: "He said that if somebody had to jump out of the street in an emergency, the bushes would be in the way," Schmidt explained.
The Notice To Abate Nuisance Or Correct Violation Schmidt received requires him to "remove illegal vegetation, shrubs, plants from the parkway adjacent to your property. Return parkway to grade and original condition. Failure to comply will result in further legal action."
"What's interesting is that we actually paid a landscape architect to come in here and give us a plan," Schmidt says, "and her plan called for deer grass and bushes in the front parkway. So apparently a lot of landscape architects aren't aware of this problem either." Schmidt adapted the hired architect's plan and did all of the labor himself.
"I asked him, 'How is that you came upon this—do you have city workers driving around all the time looking for this?' He said, 'I don't drive around looking for this, one of your neighbors complained.'"
Schmidt suspects that the mystery neighbor's complaints may have been about the tree branches rather than the landscaping, which he actually receives a number of compliments on. "People tell me that when they're walking by, they actually slow down, because they enjoy being in that forest-like environment that I've provided, with the shade and the natural plants," Schmidt says of his revamped yard. "But those guys are bureaucrats, and their job is to go around and whip out the rulebook when somebody complains, write a slip and put it in the mail. When they came and saw that the branches had already been removed, they still needed to write something down."
Given Los Angeles' years of campaigns to encourage residents to conserve water, city residents could hardly be blamed for assuming that replacing a water-intensive grass lawn with drought-resistant plants would be welcomed, not punished. But Schmidt's error, it seems, wasn't with plants, but with paperwork.
Although residents are responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the parkways in front of their property, re-landscaping them with anything other than grass requires an Office of Engineering permit. The fee for this permit: a whopping $539.00.
A Los Angeles Times article on the DWP rebate program praised its inclusion of parkways, saying: "Opening the DWP program to parkways makes good sense because watering with sprinklers is next to impossible there without creating runoff. Under the new drought ordinances, creating runoff is now illegal. So instead of waiting for an inevitable ticket, homeowners can receive a rebate." But the story's author either wasn't aware of, or failed to mention, the fact that the $539.00 permit fee would likely cancel out a significant portion, if not all, of the rebate for many homeowners, undermining DWP's well-intentioned incentive program.
Also questionable is the reasoning that Schmidt was offered by Bureau of Street Services about their anti-bush policy, because Schmidt's plants are not only small enough to be easily trampled in an emergency, but they are also in compliance with the city's Residential Parkway Landscaping Guidelines. Although Schmidt did not obtain the required permit, his landscaping meets the guidelines' criteria, which specify that "plant materials must be lower than 36" in height," that they "must not form a continuous hedge or screen," and that they must be drought tolerant, and without rigid spines or thorns. The guidelines state that the mulch and bark chips in Schmidt's parkway are acceptable as groundcover, and Schmidt even has the "convenience walkway" called for in the guidelines.
Hoping not to be forced to mow down his garden or bury it in sand, Schmidt contacted Councilman Greig Smith's office, where he was able to find sympathy for his plight. In what Schmidt gratefully described as "one of the most refreshing government interactions I've had," a representative from the Councilman's office agreed to contact the Bureau of Street Services on Schmidt's behalf, and was able to get action on the violation suspended indefinitely, the greatly relieved Schmidt said.
"Our position is that it was ridiculous that it should cost $300 for a permit for residents to install drought tolerant plants in the parkway when the City policy is to encourage people to reduce water use so we can conserve our water resources," said Matt Myerhoff, Councilman Smith's Communications Director. In response to such contradictory policies, in 2009 the Councilman introduced a motion stating that "the City should ensure that there are no barriers or disincentives to water conservation, drought-tolerant landscaping, and synthetic turf, and should consider waiving landscape and parkway permit fees for drought-tolerant lawns."
That motion, however, has yet to be adopted, and for the time being, permits and their attendant fees are still required by anyone who wishes to re-landscape a parkway.
"The city kind of wants to have it both ways—you can't do anything with it, but if anything happens to it, it's your fault," Schmidt says. "But If I'm responsible for it, why should I have to get a permit?"
Related story: "L.A. may stop footing bills for sidewalk and driveway repairs," Los Angeles Times