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Honey, time to spray the lawn

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The Insta-Green crew arrived on Peppermint Drive in green caps and green shirts, carrying buckets of green paint.

Their mission?

Convert a long-dead lawn into a lush patch of grass worthy of any golf course or polo field.

No sod or seed required, just a bit of water, a few chemicals and the willing suspension of disbelief.

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Supervising it all was David Milligan, a laconic entrepreneur with an eye for opportunity and a nose for the niche market.

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said modestly, as his three workers trimmed the lawn in preparation for its makeover. “The whole world is green right now.”

Thanks to the city of Perris, Milligan is raking in a different kind of green. Not long ago the town hired his company to treat an epidemic of dead lawns fronting its more than 1,100 foreclosed homes.

“We saw what was happening, so we put our heads together to try to come up with a solution to help reduce the impact of these foreclosures,” said Perris Mayor Pro Tem Mark Yarbrough.

They considered watering, but it proved too costly. Then Milligan made his pitch: Why water when you can paint?

“They asked for a demonstration and liked what they saw,” Milligan said.

In Riverside County, where foreclosures have spread like collapsing dominoes, dousing dead grass with green paint suddenly seems perfectly reasonable. After all, this is a place where unfinished housing tracts stand like ghost towns, where people sell off prized possessions at yard sales and where a family of bobcats once moved into an empty home and hung out for days on the porch.

In other words, it’s a great time to be Milligan.

So far he’s painted about 20 lawns, charging between $400 and $700 each. After the right shade is selected, the paint is sprayed on dead grass and dirt, giving the illusion of a healthy lawn for three to four months. The paint, said Milligan, is green on more than one level. It’s made of natural, biodegradable ingredients.

“We think this is the most cost-effective way of addressing the problem,” Yarbrough said. “Get it green, get it sold and move on.”

That was certainly the motto on Peppermint Drive.

After clearing the weeds, team member Brian Roberts armed himself with a long, narrow sprayer. As a sputtering pump churned a bucket of paint in the driveway, he went to work. The transformation was immediate. Inch by inch, foot by foot, brown scrub gave way to emerald-green grass. The lawn was still dead, but vibrantly so.

Roberts worked in the mortgage industry before business dried up.

“Maybe this is my way of giving back,” he said. “Maybe I put these people in this home. This may be some sort of hell for me.”

Mark Kazemier, who followed Roberts carrying a splash guard to keep paint off the sidewalk and driveway, was recently laid off as superintendent of a high-rise condo project in San Diego.

Foreman Bruce Cooney is a stone mason. “My business has been slow, but these guys are keeping busy,” he said.

Milligan, a 54-year-old father of five from Murrieta, painted his first lawn as an experiment. The house next door to his had gone into foreclosure. The grass had died. So one day he touched it up with a splash of green.

“The neighbors loved it,” he said. “Now other guys are trying it. But your average Joe Blow gardener can’t do this. He can’t do the detail.”

Milligan’s attention to detail stems from his other line of work: cleaning crime scenes. He’s mopped up after shootings, stabbings, beatings, arsons and suicide. He’s torn out carpets, floors and walls to get rid of human remains and rancid smells.

“The crime scene stuff helps me with the house stuff because of the detail,” he said. “The better the detail, the better the job.”

As Milligan surveyed the faded wood chips and wilted plants adorning the sad lawn before him, his mind raced. Why not install plastic plants and spray paint the bark red? Maybe paint the rocks as well, he said.

“I see an evolution of this business. The foreclosures will end, but the water shortage won’t,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time until people get sick of watering their lawns and ask me to paint them.”

The next-door neighbor emerged to see what was happening.

“It looks a lot nicer than before,” said Nona Martin, 35. “These houses have become eyesores. I hope this helps get it sold.”

Five hours later, the job was done and the area tidied up. The once-moribund lawn now resembled a putting green.

Milligan was pleased.

“Drive down this street now and you couldn’t tell the difference between this and any other lawn,” he said.

His smile evaporated after he drove a few blocks to inspect a lawn he would be treating next week. It was a jungle of thorny weeds -- with no grass.

“This is a disaster,” Milligan said glumly. “I will be painting dirt. I don’t dislike painting dirt, it’s just that the paint applies differently to dirt than grass.”

The next day, Insta-Green was at it again, painting the lawn of a foreclosed six-bedroom house with broken windows and a shopping cart marooned in the frontyard.

“We’ll paint that too,” cracked Milligan, pointing at the cart.

Leo Becerra, who lives on the street, stopped to watch. He said teenagers had been hanging out in front of the house, and the inside had been trashed.

“I have been keeping my eye on this place,” he said. “I don’t want to see it tagged because then the whole street will go downhill.”

Perris City Councilman and local real estate agent Al Landers said he’s seen a change in neighborhoods once the lawns are painted. Some people respond by taking better care of their own property, he said.

“I think it helps heal the neighborhood and makes people proud to live in Perris,” he said. “It renews community spirit.”

Milligan says lawn painting may be the ultimate green job. He even wonders if there’s a television show in it.

“I’m thinking, ‘Pimp My Lawn,’ ” he said. “You know how we could get something like that started?”

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david.kelly@latimes.com


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