Landscape rules on how much lawn is enough differ by city

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

KEEPING that thick, verdant blanket of grass watered in these dog days of summer is about as economical and conservation-minded an enterprise as gassing up the family SUV for the weekly commute or a long-distance vacation. It costs a bundle, and pretty soon you have to do it all over again.

But before yanking out the Marathon and replacing it with concrete or AstroTurf, it’s best to check out the myriad landscaping rules, regulations and ordinances individual municipalities enforce. Just because Los Angeles homeowners can put, pour or plant nearly anything in their frontyards doesn’t mean Long Beach residents can too.

Equally confounding is that some cities are promoting water conservation, while still requiring that yards be at least half grass. Officials are scrambling to catch up with a conservation movement that many of its residents already have embraced.

“It’s hard, because changing the zoning ordinances is a long process,” said Jesse Brown, assistant planner for Burbank. “It can take a year and needs City Council approval.”

Add to that the different philosophies among city planning departments, and headaches are born.

“We have almost no regulations whatsoever,” said Michael O’Brien, a planning associate for Los Angeles.

“If you want to plant a drought-tolerant garden, you can,” said Glendale’s Neighborhood Services Administrator Sam Engle. “As long as you follow the guidelines.”

And therein lies the rub, or shrub, if you will: If you’re going Sahara, check in first with local government.

Longtime Burbank homeowners Margie and Louis Dell had Laramee Haynes do the checking for them. The Pasadena landscaper told the couple that they could implement their drought-tolerant design, which included pebbles and recycled concrete, as long as they met the city’s requirement that no more than 45% of their front- and street-facing yards be hard-scaped.

He tore out their tired turf and replaced it with flowering paprika yarrow, lilac verbena, red California fuchsia, deer grass and oak trees, all anchored by redwood mulch. Window planters are filled with succulents.

The driveway, once a solid mass of concrete, now is made of pebbles and broken recycled concrete. A brook filled with recycled water flows through the backyard and spills into a pond stuffed with goldfish that feed on mosquitoes and algae.

The Dells got fired up to make the changes after attending a Burbank water conservation workshop.

A trip to the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, where a botanist explained drought-tolerant landscaping, sealed the deal. The nonprofit organization promotes native gardens and offers more than 300 varieties of native plants for sale.

“Our neighbors love our garden,” Margie Dell said of her new landscaping, which requires watering only twice a year. “They want to know how to do it.”

Jim Brophy’s neighbors had a different reaction when he ripped out the expansive front lawn of his new home and went native in the Park Estates neighborhood of Long Beach about 18 months ago.

After learning about the benefits of water conservation, he planted manzanita shrubs, a palo verde tree, rosemary, Russian sage and other native species, which provide color year-round and require limited water. He’s reduced yard clippings, he said, and is proud that with no edging or mowing, he’s doing his part to cut down on the use of fossil fuels.

His neighbors, however, haven’t shared his enthusiasm.

“The homeowners association said that I hadn’t talked it up to the board, and at an open house I attended, I heard remarks that my yard was weird and ugly,” Brophy said.

“The irony is that people visiting the house for sale next door to me now stop by my house and tell me they love my garden. They want to know who did it and how.”

In Long Beach, a sustainability commission has been created to focus on new landscaping standards that may permit more hardscape, said Craig Beck, director of Long Beach Development Services.

Currently, the rules vary by neighborhood, he said, but lawn is required on a fair-sized portion of residential properties.

“We don’t want 100% hardscaping, because we’re big on open space here,” Beck said. “But we do encourage environmental responsibility, and we will encourage more drought-tolerant landscaping with native plants.”

To find out about your city’s landscaping and lawn-watering rules, visit city websites and click on the links to planning or community development departments.

Here is a sampler of some Southland cities’ regulations:

* Los Angeles: There are some landscaping rules, but they’re “scattered all over the zoning codes,” L.A. City Planning associate O’Brien said. Owners of single-family homes can pretty much do as they please; the city regulates properties with duplexes and larger residential dwellings, which have different rules. Historic Preservation Overlay Zones have their own rules governing landscaping.

Note, also, that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently signed an ordinance that doubles fines for residents who repeatedly violate the city’s “drought buster” rules, including a ban on watering lawns between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

For more information, go

* Long Beach: Residents are “encouraged” to dedicate no more than 50% of their frontyards to concrete, said Development Services Director Beck. Wood chips and gravel are permitted, up to 100% of frontyards. Rules are set by neighborhood associations; the city “doesn’t strictly enforce landscaping regulations,” he added. Drought-tolerant measures are encouraged and may soon be required. Go to ordin ances/default.asp.

* Glendale: Rules vary with the neighborhoods, most of which require that 40% of setback areas be fully landscaped (not all in one corner of the yard) and that the landscaped areas consist primarily of live plant material. Go to

* Burbank: No more than 45% of frontyard and street-facing side yards may be hardscape (concrete, brick, pavers, etc.). Go to partments/deptsa.htm#cdd.

* Riverside: Frontyard landscaping is not regulated, other than requiring that the space be maintained at a quality at least equal to that of the rest of the neighborhood, and that varies by neighborhood. Go to; click on “municipal code,” then “zoning code.”

* Irvine: Each of the city’s 80 or so master-planned communities has a homeowners association, which decides the landscaping plan. Homeowners seeking a change to their yard must get association approval.

* Santa Barbara: Owners submit landscape plans to the city. Yards of single-family homes must be designed with no more than 20% of the landscaped area planted with grass or plants that are not drought-tolerant. Grass is not allowed on slopes with 20% or greater grades within landscaped areas. Landscaped areas not covered by grass, shrubs or succulents must be covered with mulch. Strict irrigation rules apply. More information is at ernment/Departments/ComDev/.