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Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Lawn Police?

There is an interesting drama unfolding in the City of Orange right now, where a couple faces the possibility of criminal punishment for ripping out their lawn after an anonymous complaint by a neighbor.  KTLA  did a piece on it and the LA Times had a summary of the story this past week:
Click here to find out more!
If you missed the KTLA link from The Times' home page, here's the story: While some cities in Southern California are calling for mandatory water conservation, officials in Orange are taking a family to court because their drought-tolerant lawn alternative is not up to code.

In what sounds eerily similar to the “yard cop” stories Steve Lopez has reported in the past, Quan and Angelina Ha have been going back and forth with the city for more than a year about their lack of lawn. Prompted by one neighbor’s anonymous complaint, the Has were cited for not having 40% of their yard landscaped, per city law.

The couple were contacted after they tore out their lawn and left the yard bare. They have since planted drought-tolerant landscaping, including some lavender, rosemary and native wildflower seeds, which they say are germinating under wood chips. You can see the current landscape on KTLA video here.

The Has have been summoned to court on Tuesday. The maximum penalty: six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Kind of an amazing story regarding our front yards, the public-private interface, and the power of the market and people's attachment to the lawn (or at least traditional front yard aesthetics).  On one hand, codes regarding landscaping serve to promote stable property values (ask any homeowner how the value of their house does when the neighbor next door doesn't care for their yard or property), and a minimum landscape requirement can help prevent dust, blight, and other potential nuisances from a truly barren landscape.  But the fact that someone could go to jail for 6 months and be fined up to $1,000 is unnerving, especially when the change could actually promote a more sustainable landscape.  It is also sad, but perhaps telling, that a neighbor no longer feels comfortable enough to speak to their neighbor about what is happening on their street, but rather feels compelled to place an anonymous tip.  To me the story underscores the strange dynamic at play regarding our front yards where private ownership interfaces with public perception, and in this case possibly public punishment.  In this residential landscape, challenges to the norm of the street are highly frowned upon - perhaps because of a lack of understanding, perhaps because market dynamics create a fear of non-conformance.  Whatever the reason, we are obliged by public perception and oft times regulation to find a commonness and consistency in our aesthetics with our neighbors.  The story begs the question - is this preventing sustainable changes in our lifestyles?  And, is it undermining, rather than promoting, a true community?  

(The Ha Family front yard in Orange.  Image from LA Times.)

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