Jul 18 2014

OPINION: Artificial Grass Should Not be Considered Hardscape

Did you know that artificial grass (turf) is considered HARDSCAPE in Piedmont and thus does not count as part of the 30% uncovered ground required for each lot?

Every lot is only allowed to have 70% hardscape: structures, brick, cement, and  artificial TURF are all considered hardscape. 30% of the lot must remain uncovered by hardscape.

Given the draught conditions, my husband and I have refused to water our front lawn.  Those of you who know our house, will attest to the brown and barren ground in the front of our house. We decided to install artificial turf. (Not an inexpensive choice but something we wanted as we like the ability to sit on the front lawn and we aren’t gardeners and thus a rock garden etc. was not something we would keep up.)

But then, we learned that we cannot use artificial turf, as we would not meet the 30/70 requirement.

By the way, artificial turf has very good drainage:  there are drainage holes every 4″ on the turf and the turf is laid over 4″ of crushed granite and sand.  Drainage is not an issue.

I attended the July 14 Planning Commission meeting and urged the Commissioners to enter the world of drought and rethink the law that classifies artificial grass as hardscape.  To my surprise (and pleasure) the Commissioners immediately agreed that the issue needs to be looked at and they have directed staff to write a report to the Commission and to place the issue on the agenda for discussion next month: August 11.

Please join me, as I urge the Planning Commission to change allowable options for us to address the water shortage and still maintain a verdant city.

Robin Flagg, Piedmont Resident

Editors’ Note:  The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Piedmont Civic Association.

4 Responses to “OPINION: Artificial Grass Should Not be Considered Hardscape”

  1. Thank you for raising this issue. It is certainly worth exploring and I am confident that the intelligent members of our Planning Commission will consider the complex nuances of this issue. It may seem (in our current severe drought) that this issue is a no-brainer (replacing water-intensive East Coast/British-style lawns with a synthetic substitute which requires no water– and, just as important– nor poisonous chemical fertilizers and herbicides which pollute our watershed. Looking more deeply, however, plants (both their above ground leaf/branch systems as well as their underground root systems) are more than just passive water users. They provide a number of benefits beyond their physical beauty which are less immediately apparent. Live plants clean our air (an important carbon-footprint reducer), filter poisons out of our watershed (like the aforementioned fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, animal wastes, etc), help control excessive run-off which overwhelms our rain sewers and street gutter systems. Live plants improve the condition of the soil, aerating it, giving back nutrients and elements which balance the soil’s complex ecosystem of organisms (visible critter as well as micro- and mico-organisms). Live plants also provide sustenance, shelter, and moisture to a host of beneficial insects, pollinators, birds, and other native and migrating species.

    Artificial turf may provide superficial greenery and may drain at periodic intervals (e.g. 4″) into gravel beds but where do they drain beyond that? The short answer is downhill– perhaps into your downhill neighbor’s yard or, worse yet, their basement, and also into our City’s and County’s storm water management systems. Some homeowners don’t consider the impact of their landscaping (or landscaping removal) decisions on their downhill neighbors and are content to allow gravity to be their home’s de-facto drainage system, passing their run-off on to the lots of their adjacent neighbors. Natural landscaping helps to mitigate the amount of drainage water (run-off) passed from lot-to-lot or into the storm system.

    The purpose of the 70%/30% artificial/hardscape vs. natural-scape restriction in the first place (as I understood it) was to prevent excessive run-off into our storm drain system– a system which is becoming more and more overwhelmed as climate change creates more severe weather conditions (heavier rainstorms, heavier windstorms, more extensive and severe droughts, etc). Treating artificial turf as natural landscaping simply because it is permeable ignores its incremental burden on the storm system and the significant additional benefits which live plants provide.

    There are options other than artificial turf to consider for reducing water utilization– for example, planting a deciduous tree over your lawn (particularly south-facing lawns) to reduce its water needs by providing summer shade, keeping your lawn clipped at a longer length, and self-mulching your lawn with its own clippings. Better yet, reducing lawns by replacing lawn (or sections of lawn) by planting a beautiful selection of California native or drought-tolerant plants which utilize little to no-water during our summer-dry season.

    I don’t have a solution to this issue and instinctively dislike one-size-fits-all solutions. However, I encourage all citizens, as well as the Planning Commission and City Council to consider the complexity of this issue with due respect and consideration for the long-term health of our ecosystem and public works as well as neighborhood amity. It would be a shame for a knee-jerk reaction to a water crisis (which may be short-term– some folks are predicting a severe El Nin~o rainy season this year) to have unhealthy, unintended consequences for long-term neighborly-relations and our environment. I look forward to learning more.

  2. Hope raises the nuances of this issue but from a civic perspective, Robin is being told she cannot install artificial turf (AT) because it is considered hardscape (a matter of code) and that definition is what staff and the Planning Commission should address. Perhaps civil engineers reading this will weigh in, but AT is permeable and given the design perhaps drains better than grass. A key drainage question that Hope raises is intensity – rain fall is predicted to become more intense with climate change so what is the capacity of AT to handle these intense burst of rains – will the system be overwhelmed and rain back flow into the storm water system? I don’t think Piedmont’s storm water system is as taxed as Hope suggests. There is an issue of trash entering the system and reaching the Bay, but I don’t recall capacity being an issue. Storm water infiltration into our sewer system is an issue.

    The aesthetic and holistic issues that Hope raises are better addressed at Council or during the review of the Chapter 17 design review guideline slated for later this year.

    Finally, there are drought-tolerant landscape alternatives available through the Bay-Friendly Landscape Program – see http://www.stopwaste.org/home/index.asp?page=8.

  3. Thanks, Garrett– I appreciate your substantive and thoughtful understanding of the issue based on your superior familiarity with Piedmont infrastructure and history of problems as well as your suggestions on process.

  4. Well, it turns out that artificial turf is not so simply addressed by the 70/30 hardscape/landscape rule. Following text from Chapter 17 of Piedmont Municipal Code:

    Hardscape Surface. “Hardscape surface” means any non-landscaped surface where vegetation would not easily grow. “Hardscape surface” specifically includes, but is not limited to, all primary, accessory and secondary structures; paving materials such as concrete, asphalt, brick, stone, or gravel, or wood, including stepping stones or other similar walkways; swimming pools; and patios, decks, balconies, and terraces. “Hardscape surface” does not include building eaves, landscaping or furniture, statuary, or other individual articles used in conjunction with landscaping which individually do not cover more than ten (10) square feet and cumulatively do not cover more than one hundred (100) square feet.

    Lot Coverage. No more than forty percent (40%) of the total lot area shall be covered by primary, accessory or secondary structures, except that in-ground swimming pools that are not supported by a structure or retaining wall, temporary handicap structures, and building eaves shall not be counted toward the 40%; no more than seventy percent (70%) shall be covered by hardscape surfaces, except permitted temporary handicap features.

    Location. The required landscaping shall have a minimum dimension on any side of not less than three feet (3′). The following minimum areas for landscaping shall be required:
    (a) Lots devoted to residential occupancies shall have not less than fifteen percent (15%) of the site devoted to landscaping. With the exception of areas paved for ingress and egress, all required street setbacks shall be landscaped.

    So the rule of thumb is more like 70/15/?? with the caveat that the 20’ street setback be landscaped. So better to say 70% hardscape/30% softscape with half of your softscape (15%) being landscape. Homes with bigger yards can have artificial turf within view of the street and the city certainly does not abide by that rule but for most homes in Piedmont that setback rule would seem to preclude the installation of artificial turf.

    But maybe not.

    17.2.41: Landscaping. “Landscaping” means the planting, irrigation, and maintenance of land with living plant materials. (Ord. No. 488 N.S., 10/87).

    But by the definition of hardscape, other “articles” are allowed in the landscape area of your property: “Hardscape surface” does not include building eaves, landscaping or furniture, statuary, or other individual articles used in conjunction with landscaping which individually do not cover more than ten (10) square feet and cumulatively do not cover more than one hundred (100) square feet.

    So could a landscape, front or back, include 10 “swatches” of artificial turf? That is one for the City Attorney. I think a case can be made for AT, for seniors at least, under the “reasonable accommodation” definition recently added to the Code. AT requires less maintenance and may make areas more accessible.

    So the Planning Commission will grapple with this issue next Monday, August 11, hopefully with a carry-over to a future date when Piedmonters are actually in town. In the meantime, they should consider the advice of Mark Feldkamp, the city’s landscape architect: “The citizenry wants to keep the government out of their yards. They spend millions on their homes and don’t want Big Brother telling them what they can and cannot do.”

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