Don't make these mistakes when transforming your water-wasting parkway

When planting parkways, the water-wise approach is a growing concern

Years of drought have made a mark on Southern California in many ways: We've got shorter showers, rising prices for produce and cocktail party rants over the madness of obscure water districts.

You might not hear much chatter about parkways — those strips between the curb and the sidewalk that line almost every street in Los Angeles and surrounding cities. But the drought is having its way there as well (and, make no mistake about it, despite recent rains we're still in the midst of a lengthy dry spell). If you're confused about how to plant and maintain your devil's strip (as it's known in some parts of the country), you're not alone.

Once upon a wetter time, parkways helped create a visual greenbelt. And they filled some practical needs as well. As explained by Lance Oishi, senior landscape architect for the L.A. Department of Public Works' Bureau of Street Services, not only did the parkways create easy access from car door to sidewalk, they "provided a nicer drive for motorists [and] for people walking. ... Developers wanted to give the street a country estate kind of feel."

That uniformly green look is changing now, sometimes in a not-very-beautiful way. Watering restrictions have resulted in some homeowners letting their parkway lawns die, while others increasingly are digging them up to take advantage of cash-for-turf rebate programs offered through various water districts, in which cities will pay homeowners for every square foot (in L.A., $3.75 per square foot) of lawn that is replaced by approved drought-tolerant alternatives. The rebate programs in particular have given rise to a patchwork quilt of what could kindly be called "alternative" landscaping.

Where green once followed green, now on a single street you can find one parkway covered in 6-foot-tall fountain grasses, the next with decomposed granite dotted with spikey agave and succulents, the next with tangle-rooted ground cover, another paved over with stone and mortar.

Landscape architect and designer June Scott, who lives in South Pasadena, finds business "exploding" as people seek to replace frontyard and parkway lawns to take part in the cash-for-turf rebates. There is a definite trade-off, she finds. "There is something visually calming having street trees and grass," she says. "Now we have trees and a hodgepodge collection of plants."

The landscape cacophony not only has made access from car to sidewalk a trickier proposition, it has legal implications for well-meaning homeowners who may not realize, first, that there are city ordinances regulating parkway planting and, second, that they are personally liable for issues arising from what they plant.

The peculiar legal status of parkways is the source of some of the confusion. Most homeowners don't realize they are responsible for maintenance of the sidewalk, the parkway and the curbs in front of their homes. By law, they must maintain the parkway in a healthy condition, including keeping it properly watered. However, ownership comes with an automatic dedicated easement to the city of those public access areas, allowing the city to oversee and regulate their use.

And those regulations extend beyond the city, as Oishi explains, which only adds to the complexity. "There are so many layers of governance for the right of ways," he says, including federal, state and local codes. While all cities are looking to replace lawns with less thirsty alternatives and most want either low-volume or no-irrigation systems in the parkways, there is little uniformity in landscaping regulations and guidelines.

Los Angeles, with its 11,000 miles of sidewalks, has the most stringent restrictions and most onerous permit fees — $1,000 plus — for planting anything outside its list of 20 acceptable plants. Oishi says safe, unimpeded and stable access is key, which precludes pavers, rocks, pebbles, widespread mulch and even decomposed granite without a permit. Burbank, conversely, requires a permit "only if you are putting in fixed hardscape that invites walking," says Director of Public Works Bonnie Teaford. "Access is not an issue to us."

The city of South Pasadena took on parkway landscaping last August. Citing "alterations" to the parkways "without City approval" that have "created issues with sustainability, access, visibility, potential hazards and nuisances," the City Council amended its municipal code with updates that include maximum plant height, planting distance from driveways and sidewalks, an 18-inch pathway every 15 feet, and low-water and general maintenance requirements. Seventy percent of the parkway must be live plants when mature.

So far, so good, reports senior management analyst Debby Figoni, who is responsible for the turf rebate program in the city of 26,000. "Our issue was that people were planting large plants, so it becomes a matter of safety."

In addition to offering a variety of landscaping classes, Figoni works one-on-one with residents and goes over their planting plans. "If people put in the right plants and are taught how to maintain them, it will continue on," she says. "Drought or no drought, we must conserve water from here on out."

Many cities, including South Pasadena and Los Angeles, have published online user-friendly guidelines or outlines of the regulations, which often include lists of suggested plants. The goal is compliance, not penalties, Oishi says. "We are trying to make this as understandable as possible. When people understand why, the level of frustration will go way down."

Cash-for-grass rebates spur a crazy quilt of parkway plantings

With Southern Californians increasingly taking advantage of the cash-for-turf lawn removal rebate program offered by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the strip of lawn between the curb and sidewalk known as the parkway has undergone dramatic transformation. Many homeowners are replacing the traditional grass with a grab-bag of plants and materials, including shrubs large and small, hard pavers, loose stones, spiky cactuses, dense ground covers and concrete.

But the panoply of laws governing what can be placed or planted in the parkway spans federal, state and local ordinances, and can be a tangle of confusion. Los Angeles has the toughest regulations of all its neighbors and the most costly permit fees.

And while other cities might be willing to see the parkway as an extension of the private frontyard and allow a range of modifications without permit, Los Angeles is not. The parkways, after all, are not, technically, private property, even though homeowners are legally obliged to maintain them at their own cost.

Lance Oishi, senior landscape architect at the L.A. Bureau of Street Services' engineering division, says the most important aspect of the city's parkways is that "people should be able to get out of the car and walk to the sidewalk unimpeded." That precludes, without a permit, a great number of plants and unstable, nonliving materials such as pavers, rocks, pebbles, large mulch and even decomposed granite that can lead to slipping and tripping.

What is allowed? To cope with the deluge of homeowner queries to various departments, in 2010, the city, in conjunction with the DWP, TreePeople and other civic groups, put together a formal "Residential Parkway Landscaping Guideline," available online on the City of Los Angeles website. In addition to instructions such as maximum plant height, planting distances from driveways and sidewalks, and prohibited nonliving materials, the guideline provides a list of 20 acceptable plants — among them several sedges, a couple of yarrows, gray-green dymondia and creeping thyme — that do not require any permit.

Adding to the general lack of clarity, however, the list includes seven types of turf grass, all of which have low watering requirements.

And then there is the issue of enforcement. The city's Department of Public Works has a clearly understaffed enforcement division of 35 to cover all sorts of issues related to the public right of way, such as illegal dumping. For Chief Enforcement Officer Gary Harris, parkway planting violations are "not the most important issue we deal with. Unless it's a public safety issue, that's going to be a complaint-driven issue."

Offenders are given the opportunity to become compliant. "We're not out to fine people or criminalize," Harris says. "It's to educate." In the very rare circumstance, however, the city attorney's office could file a misdemeanor charge against a decidedly noncompliant homeowner.

home@latimes.com

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