July 3, 2008

Sacramento Won’t Fine Couple Who Let Lawn Die

SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ Sacramento city officials have admitted their code enforcement policies may not be drought-friendly, and said they won't fine the couple featured in Wednesday's Sacramento Bee who let their front lawn die to save water.

The story prompted a torrent of outrage from the public, who overwhelmingly supported Anne Hartridge and Matt George, the Sacramento couple cited by city code enforcers after they stopped watering their lawn.

"When you think about all the water being wasted everywhere, it's horrible they would go after that poor woman," said Ursula Crabtree of Carmichael. "If this person is being persecuted, something is wrong with the system."

Steve Caraway, a Sacramento sales representative for Forever Lawn, offered to pay the couple's fine and sell them an artificial turf at cost. But he didn't know the city's codes forbid artificial turf in front yards.

"That's odd because we have quite a few of them in Sacramento," he said. "That is pretty crazy."

Ron Riola said he sees people gratuitously wasting water every time he walks his dog, which he does at least twice a day.

He said he has reported more than 100 cases of water waste to the city in the past six years, and said none has been corrected.

"I wish I didn't have the time to do it because my blood pressure would be lower," said Riola, who is retired. "It literally has to be thousands and thousands of gallons wasted every day, all the time. You see it and you just shake your head."

The city's director of code enforcement, Max Fernandez, told The Sacramento Bee on Wednesday the front-yard rules allow more flexibility than the code language indicates.

The code states explicitly that front yards "shall be landscaped, irrigated and maintained." This would seem to preclude yards that are simply mulched, like Hartridge's, or those that use cactuses or other drought-tolerant plants requiring no water.

"The key word is a 'maintained' front yard," Fernandez said. If a yard is being tended and is not a nuisance, he said, it's OK.

He said his department has begun preparing a flier to give to people who have chosen to let their lawns die so they will know their landscaping options to comply with city rules. That should be available next week.

Complaints about front yards have increased this year, he said, but many pertain to foreclosed homes, not water savers. He said it's important to have clear policies that treat each fairly.

He said Hartridge and her husband would not be fined.

"The mulch and hydrangeas and stuff like that is quite all right," he said of the couple's yard. "If this drought continues, we're going to have to change our policies when we get complaints like this."

City Councilman Steve Cohn said the code enforcement officer in this case may have been "overzealous." He plans to meet with Hartridge and George next week to discuss their situation, and said city codes may need revising to be drought-friendly.

"I agree it's outrageous," Cohn said. "I think we probably would need to revisit the ordinance if we want to make it clear that people don't have to water at all."

He also said the Utilities Department may need more resources to handle water waste calls.

The department's conservation unit has seven employees. Five are inspectors who respond to complaints: three part-time and two full-time. One of the full-time jobs is vacant.

Julie Friedman, the city's water conservation administrator, said her staff gets about 1,000 water-waste complaints annually and responds to each within one day.

The first response is to meet with the property owner to explain the violation or leave an informational door hanger. There is no follow-up unless complaints continue on the same address.

The department gives water wasters up to three warnings before considering a penalty. Then they could be fined up to five times their water rate and even have their water service turned off. Both penalties are very rare.

"The city usually bends over backwards to help people and educate people," said Friedman.

For her part, Hartridge was glad to hear she won't have to spend "half a mortgage payment" on a city fine.

"I feel thrilled that the city is taking it seriously," she said.


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