'Lawn Police' May Be Coming to Palmdale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rows of neatly trimmed lawns are not the typical picture of the high desert. It's a place where year-round winds--strong enough to blow ravens backward--scour the sand and rake vacant fields into dust bowls.

But Palmdale wants to spruce up its image and the city thinks lawn police could do the trick.

The City Council is set to impose rules that would make it illegal for residents to ignore their landscaping. The idea is that the fastest-growing community in Southern California deserves better than crab grass and dirt clods. Yards should not double as parking lots. Weeds should be shorter than trees.

Greenery--or at least painted pebbles--should be the rule in Palmdale, city officials say.

Landscaping eyesores are plentiful. In one older east side neighborhood, 3-foot-tall weeds cast shadows on a Harley-Davidson parked at the front door. In a newer tract on the west side, a For Sale sign swings lopsided from a single hinge on a post embedded in dead sod.

A number of other suburban boomtowns, such as Rialto and Rancho Cucamonga, already require residents to "keep up with the Joneses." The codes often divide communities, as they have in Palmdale, where the city intends to enforce the law by getting neighbors to snitch on each other.

Violators of Palmdale's ordinance, which is expected to be adopted Wednesday and go into effect 30 days later, could face fines of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.

Such laws are increasingly common in suburbs. The rules are updates of age-old noxious-weed bans in force in just about every city and town across the nation, said Mary Meyer, professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota. "Most of us have good stewards in mind when we see mowed lawns," she said.

For more than a decade, many environmentalists have fought greenery laws. The National Wildlife Federation, which encourages nature-friendly landscaping, estimates dozens of yard battles have spilled into courts around the country.

Now the rules and disputes are stretching to the farthest horizons of sprawl.

"It is not at all uncommon for cities to have maintenance ordinances," said Megan Taylor, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities. Among the latest was Rialto, in the fast-growing Inland Empire, which adopted a "green-lawn ordinance" in 1999.

Rod Taylor, Rialto's director of development services, blamed some of the troubles there on a large percentage of commuters who spend little time at home.

"We have so many people who commute into Orange County or Los Angeles County to work, so there's a correlation of how much time they have to care for their home and mow lawns," he said. "People don't have a lot of spare time to do all that."

Rialto patterned its law after Rancho Cucamonga, which adopted a lawn ordinance five years ago. Until then, Rancho Cucamonga, another Inland Empire city, had no rules to compel busy homeowners to keep their property green, said building official Bill Makshanoff.

"The vast majority of these kinds of issues have been resolved on a voluntary basis," Makshanoff said. However, the city has imposed penalties in a few cases, he said.

Cities with lawn codes can clean up troublesome properties and place liens against the titleholder, although it is unknown whether such steps have ever been taken, officials said.

Disputes over lawns frequently stem from neighbor squabbles, said Anne M. Hanchek of Portland, Ore., a retired horticulture professor. "Often it's people not getting along with neighbors and some people will try to push things," she said, recalling an incident in Minnetonka, Minn., that ended only when the offending "naturalist" moved out of town.

Some say they fear similar wars may erupt in Palmdale.

"If a neighbor gets fed up--say they don't like your music or the way you dress--they're going to be calling the city and [complaining] about your yard," said Ryan Hadley, 40. A carpenter and father of two children, Hadley said he opposes the law even though his own yard is well-groomed.

Hadley's 1950s-era Gunton Drive neighborhood is a patchwork of beauty and neglect. The city three years ago used redevelopment funds to repair driveways and paint homes of seniors and low-income owners. The paint is already fading under the merciless desert sun.

Two doors away, Jan Lillie, 33, worries that her landlord may be punished because her flower boxes are empty and her fiance's trailer of plumbing supplies is parked in the driveway. "This is real clean for us," she said, motioning to the cropped weeds. But if we don't keep it up, the landlord gets to eat it."

Other critics say the Palmdale law could impose added burdens on residents who already are struggling with increasing utility costs and potential water shortages.

Marta Williamson, a 53-year-old disabled widow who is president of the OldTown Homeowners Assn., was cited last month for a safety code violation after she rolled four old tires out for pickup onto her mostly barren frontyard, deeply shaded by a giant fir.

She called the law an invasion of privacy.

"It's not about people being lazy, it's about people not being able to afford whether their lawn is green," she said.

Sitting in her freshly painted living room decorated with white lace curtains and floral-patterned sofas, Williamson said she keeps her utility bills low by using her fireplace for heat and kerosene lamps. "Everyone has their own priorities," she said. "If a person doesn't want a lawn, they shouldn't have to have one."

But Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford says a lawn is not required, just neatness.

Barren or weed-choked frontyards are "the No. 1 issue raised by neighborhoods," said Ledford, who is the law's chief proponent. "Most neighborhoods have a couple of property owners who seem to have no interest whatsoever in doing anything to maintain property."

A few messy yards can drag down a whole neighborhood, Ledford said. "We want to develop pride and rebuild property values. We just want you to cut your grass. It's not an overly burdensome requirement."

After three months of heated community debate, the council in April voted 3 to 2 to adopt amendments to city codes requiring all owners of single-family residential lots to landscape front and side yards visible from public streets. Lots larger than an acre are exempt.

Violators will be given 18 months to install landscaping, whether it be sprinklers and lawns or pebbles and yucca or other plants suitable to the high desert.

While city officials admit that the definition of a pleasing landscape is subjective, they emphasize the goal is to see that yards are "kept clean and maintained at all times," according to a staff report.

Initial proposals requiring sprinklers have been watered down, as have prohibitions on Bermuda grass and such root-spreading trees as cottonwoods. While those rules would still apply to landscaping at new housing developments, critics said they smacked too much of big brother to impose retroactively on homeowners.

City financial assistance would be offered to seniors, disabled residents and low-income families who cannot afford landscaping, according to a city report. Aid may be needed for up to half of an estimated 3,000 houses citywide lacking landscaping, and could cost from $750,000 to $2.25 million.

Despite a series of compromises, the community is still divided.

"This is incredible," said Palmdale Councilman Richard H. Norris. "This is going to force people to water their lawns when we have seniors who can't afford to pay their electricity bills.

"We know we're going to have a drought. We know the water tables are lower," he added. "We're the high desert. We can't expect to be like the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles."

Councilman Mike Dispenza said the rules "send out a message that is totally ill-advised. I think it will lead to pitting one neighbor against another. I really don't like the city having that much police power."

But Raul Figueroa, 39, is on the other side of the fence. A Neighborhood Watch captain, the aerospace engineer is among residents pushing for new rules. "You get a broken-window effect," he said, gesturing toward several vacant neighboring homes with dead lawns. "You have one house that stands out because it is all trashed. It lowers the property values because no one wants to live next door."

Figueroa, who planted a weeping willow, rosebushes and a rock garden in his simple yard in a single-story neighborhood built in 1990, points with enthusiasm to the shopping centers and new developments springing up in Palmdale.

"I really like what's happening here. I envision us being like Valencia some day," he said.

Neglected yards, he said, detract from that vision.

"We live in tract homes right next to each other. It has a lot of effect if you are living next door to a person who doesn't take care of the property," he added.

Glaring at a house across the street where the owners lobbed rocks and pruning shears on the roof before abandoning it, Figueroa said: "It's about pride. Having that eyesore there takes away from that pride."

Ledford and others say new rules are necessary because the city has no law to compel residents to maintain their yards other than for health and safety reasons, such as fire hazard from 2-foot-tall weeds. That code has been enforced only three times in the last 10 years, yet about 8% of yards are below par, city officials said.

Much of the deterioration occurred as a large number of homes were vacated or rented out during the last decade when the community was hit hard by the recession and aerospace layoffs, they said.

But resident Lisa Morgenstern said she fled from strict homeowner association rules in Irvine and objects to the city "telling people what their yard has to look like."

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