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Wealthy city big winner in drought lawn rebate program

Wealthy city big winner in drought lawn rebate program
Workers install artificial grass at a home in Pacific Palisades in May. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

For homeowners with sprawling lawns who sought rebate money for switching to less thirsty landscaping, it paid to move quickly.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for a time offered $2 per square foot of lawn removed with no limit on the size of the rebate.

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Nowhere was the message heard more clearly than in Rancho Santa Fe, where homeowners claimed the five largest ratepayer-funded rebates, according to MWD records released to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this post said that Tom Chelbana lived in Westlake Village. Also, the figures given for his compensation and the amount of lawn removed at his home were incorrect.

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The top five grants in the San Diego County community ranged from $48,000 to $70,000. The largest rebate awarded within Los Angeles and its neighboring counties was just over $44,000.

"We took out truckloads of plants that are huge water hogs," said Rancho Santa Fe resident Steven Smith, whose $47,800 grant is the fifth-largest residential incentive payment in the MWD data, which runs from Jan. 1, 2014, through June 16 of this year.

The MWD grant details are contained in data released after a hearing last week in Los Angeles Superior Court, where the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was trying to keep names and addresses of rebate recipients from being made public.

The program's $340-million budget was drained in a matter of months, forcing the MWD to stop accepting new applications in July.

On May 29, the MWD announced that it had imposed a $6,000 cap on the residential grants.

"We should try to make sure we can get as many projects as we can out there, to spread the wealth," Bill McDonnell, water efficiency manager for MWD, said Wednesday.

Records show that Diana Troik, 72, of Camarillo received the largest rebate in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties: $44,318 for tearing out more than 22,000 square feet of lawn. She said the money covered most of the cost of replacing her grass with drought-tolerant plants, pavers, fruit trees and a rose garden, as well as installing drip irrigation and a small fountain.

Troik said her water bills went from about $450 a month to about $60 a month.

"It has just made an enormous difference in the amount of water we use," she said. "I guess I never realized how much water was going just for the lawn."

For two years before the rebate became available, Troik said, her family had planned on removing their turf over time. The rebate allowed them to save money by doing the entire yard at once, she said.

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Troik had applied in September 2014, before the program was capped.

"I felt it was important ... to do it long enough before the end of the fiscal year when they still had some money left," Troik said. "We got very lucky in terms of the timing."

Another top recipient was Tom Chelbana, 67, a retired teacher who lives in Moreno Valley. He received more than $35,000 to remove about 17,000 square feet of lawn.

His water bill dropped from $600 a month to about $39.

"We felt guilty when we looked at our water bill," Chelbana said. "It wasn't that we were wasting water; it was just that we have such a big yard.… The reality is that in today's world, we were using way too much water for one residence."

Rancho Santa Fe was held up nationally this year as an example of a wealthy community using excessive amounts of water. At 584 gallons per person per day, usage was nearly five times the average for coastal California.

Its residents responded by cutting back, including removal of 373,000 square feet of lawn under the grant program. Water use in Rancho Santa Fe was down 42% in May and 37% in June, compared with 2013.

Although some homeowners claimed large five-figure sums, the typical grant was much smaller. The average reimbursement among Los Angeles County applicants was $2,600, the records show, and only two county residents were among the 30 largest rebate recipients.

Cook reported from San Diego, Goldenstein from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Ben Poston and Lauryn Schroeder of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.

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