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Cutting back grass not a slam dunk
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Grass is emerging as a hot Manteca political issue.

A proposed requirement to reduce the size of front lawns for all new homes as well as anyone modifying an existing front yard that some characterized would be a slam dunk before the Manteca Planning Commission Tuesday night turned into a  one-hour discussion ending with staff being asked to clarify the measure instead of  approving it.

As a result, Manteca’s time schedule to have new lawn rules in place by July 2 has been pushed back at least two weeks. That effectively delays implementation of the rule that would have started chipping away at the city’s largest consumer of water — lawns.

The stakes are high. The City Council and municipal staff are counting on a reduction in lawns to help Manteca meet a state mandated 25 percent water usage cut as  California slips deeper into a fourth year of severe drought. Manteca came up short in trying to meet the previous mandate of 20 percent. With lawns accounting for what Public Works Director Mark Houghton has indicated is 60 percent of all water use in Manteca, reducing the amount of water being used to irrigate grass is considered critical.

Members of Manteca’s real estate community that was well-represented among the two dozen people at Tuesday’s meeting made it clear they have problems with a proposal that will be before the Manteca City Council on May 5 to possibly require existing homes to meet the new proposed reduced grass areas for front yard before they can close escrow.

“New citizens to Manteca need to conserve water as do the existing citizens of Manteca need to conserve,” noted Ron Cheek speaking in favor of the proposed ordinance modification.

Realtor Wendy Benavides responded by saying that real estate community also saw the need to conserve water.

“We are all in this together,” Benavides said.

The concern of real estate agents was the city staff possibly seeking a change to less water thirsty landscaping as a condition before an existing home being sold could close escrow.

Benavides expressed concern it could cost what little equity some sellers have. She also said the requirement could delay escrows and cause buyers to lose pre-approved loans. She added that sellers could also make landscaping improvements that comply with the proposed city rule but that buyers may not like it and end up modifying it again while still complying with the reduced lawn area after the sale is completed.

That’s why she said the real estate community would favor a city effort to require buyers to comply after they buy an existing home instead of at “the point of sale.”

And although they had no problem with the proposal to cap all grass in the front yards of new homes at 25 percent of the required 35 percent of the yard must be landscaped, they wanted clarifications.

Among the concerns brought up at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting:

uWould buyers of homes where the landscaping was allowed to die be able to replace it as they wished or would they have to comply with proposed lawn restrictions?

uCan river rock be used in the 35 percent area of a front yard that must be landscaped?

uCould artificial turf be used on the remaining 75 percent of the required landscaping even though the proposed ordinance states it must include the use of live plant material?

uIf an existing homeowner refreshes bark using a different material or replaces shrubs would that be considered a modification that would trigger the proposed mandate that only 25 percent of the required area for landscaping can be in turf?

The threshold triggering the requirement of complying with the  “new yard rule” when modifying an existing yard for a home not being sold caused some concern especially given how Manteca’s code enforcement is complaint driven.

As to what materials can be used in the 35 percent area of a front yard that must be landscaped, staff noted the proposed ordinance amendment clearly states it must permeable to allow water to soak into the ground instead of runoff into the gutter. That is due to the need to reduce storm run-off.

The language also states that it must be live plant material with an emphasis on low-water use vegetation.

The ordinance as proposed would grandfather in all Manteca front yards so they wouldn’t have to comply with the maximum grass mandate. However, it does apply to existing front yards that are being modified but doesn’t define how much of a front yard modification would prompt the requirement to meet new standards.

And even the question about artificial turf could proof problematic under existing city ordinances. If it is allowed and is installed in large amounts, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate water use. In order to keep it clean whether it is from dirt or pet urine when it gets dirty it has to be hosed down with water. The city’s drought rules clearly prohibit the hosing down of driveways, patios, and sidewalks with water but it makes no mention of artificial turf.