The Lawn Police Are At It Again


The lawn-o-sphere is abuzz over another case of a homeowner getting penalized for trying to do something sensible about their lawn.  According to this story in the LA Times and another one on KTLA News' website, Quan and Angelina Ha are facing a day in court, a fine of up to $1000, and up to six months in jail for ripping out their yard and replacing it with wood chips.

Now, a front yard that consists of nothing but bare ground and wood chips is not terribly attractive, and if the family really wants to do something for the environment,they'll plant drought-proof natives that help out the wildlife and don't bounce so much hot air back onto their house in the summer.

But still. They did put in a nice fence and a few xeric plants, which should satisfy code enforcers.  Apparently it's still not enough. Did I mention that their water consumption dropped by 80 percent, which was their reason for doing it?  And that they live in a desert climate?

And here's what's interesting about this–well, interesting in a sort of municipal code geek way:

According to the news reports, city codes require that at least 40% of the yard be landscaped with plants.  But that's not actually what the code says.

My reading of the code tells me that front yard setback areas must be "permanently maintained with landscaping."  A "setback" is the distance from the street to wherever the city allows a structure to be built.  Some people's front yards are deeper than setback area, and it's hard to tell whether this is the situation for the Ha family.  Regardless, whatever part of their front yard is in the "setback" has to have "landscaping."

17.12.040  Setback Lines.

E.   Landscaping of Setback Area Required. All required setbacks
abutting a public right-of-way shall be permanently maintained with

And then we have this zoning requirement, which says that no more than 60% of the front yard can be paved.  Well, that's different than saying that 40% has to be planted.  Here's that section of the code:

17.14.090  Yard Requirements.

E.   Paving in Front Yard Areas. In addition to the provisions of
Sections 17.12.040(D) and (E) (requiring landscaping of front yard
setback areas), no more than sixty (60) percent of the front yard area
of a residentially developed property, which includes the entire width
of the property that is located between the residence and the street
right-of-way, may be covered with paved surfaces (such as concrete,
asphalt, brick, paving stones, etc.) A variance from this provision
shall be subject to review and approval of the Zoning Administrator.

Surely wood chip mulch doesn't count as paving.  And then there's this:


which basically just says that people have to comply with "That certain document entitled City of Orange Landscape Standards and Specifications."

That certain document didn't turn up on my searches of the City of Orange's website, at least not by that name. What I did find, ironically, are new guidelines for commercial and large residential projects requiring water-wise landscaping, and recommendations for homeowners that include synthetic turf (translation:  plastic grass) and mulch. How's that plastic grass going to comply with the alleged 40% landscaping requirement?

The Design Review Committee's landscape guidelines also make no mention of the 40% plant requirement.

Regardless–I'm sure the city officials feel they have some reason for requiring these people to put more plants in their front yard, even if I can't find it.  But honestly, don't city officials have something better to do?  If you think they do, how about sending them a good ol' GardenRant love letter?  You can contact the city council here and speak on behalf of the Ha family.


  1. Once again I am pro lawn….but a town forcing someone to keep a lawn just to sell them water sounds like something from a banana republic.

    The TROLL

  2. There are plenty of xeric plants on the market, even groundcovers. I would not want to be next door to someone with a woodchip yard!

  3. I support the Ha family wholeheartedly. Even if that’s not the look I’d go for, at least they are water-wise. An 80% drop in water use is not just a drop in the bucket. It makes absolutely no sense to me that the City (Lawn Police) would penalize them for this. Laura

  4. I would rather live next door to wood chips than bad grass too (live or plastic). Not that all grass is bad, just in the desert, how good could the grass be?

  5. Somebody complained. And kept complaining. And pulled up the codes to prove they were right. And the low level bureaucrat that has to inforce the rules was told do something about this and shut this annoying person up.

    Or we have what I refer to is a FLB: “F-ing little bureaucrat” That loves his/her power.

    Or we have a neighborhood/family feud and someone looks for any little thing that they can do to annoy their object of hate.

  6. How about they plant a vegetable garden in the front yard, to grow some organic, as-local-as-it-gets produce? That’ll satisfy the city requirements, still get rid of the lawn, put the water to much better use, and save them on the grocery bills. Not to mention it’s great for the environment to grown your own organic food.

    It won’t look like your typical front yard, so I don’t know whether it will satisfy the neighbors, but people need to start getting used to front yard veggie gardens anyway (personally, I find quite beautiful and interesting).

  7. In suburbia, we’re all supposed to look the same. Anything that’s different & outside the standard set in the 50’s has to be protested – preferably anonymously so as not to stand out.

    I applaud the Ha family & their attempt to use more wisely our seriously limited water resources. Perhaps if all OC residents were so wise with their landscaping, Arnold wouldn’t be suggesting yet another canal to funnel water from NorCal to SoCal.

  8. An all mulch yard could be ok if raked occasionally and new mulch added often enough to keep bare spots minimal.
    The water use drop if outstanding. With the cost of water these days it is almost worth the fines. Can you imange California being able to afford imprisoning people for lawn violations.
    Everyone in California should read a book released this year titled WATER The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power and Civilization.
    Steven Solomon.
    The last chapter on The Age Of Scarcity has me rethinking water usage and I live on one of the Great Lakes.

  9. Did you read the second article???

    That’s when the family decided to build an ornate fence and plant some drought-tolerant plants but because they didn’t file proper paperwork before an October deadline, the city still filed court papers.

    Angelina Ha says she sent mailed photos of the yard with the fence and drought-resistant plants to the city’s code-enforcement department in November.

    The couple says they never heard back from Orange officials and thought they were in the clear.

    The city now says it re-examined the Ha’s yard and determined the property does meet city standards.

    “We had two officials go out there and look at the property, and they did make strides complying with the ordinance,” Paul Sikoff, a spokesman for the city of Orange told the Los Angeles Times.

    City officials will meet with the couple later this week to make another assessment, Sitkoff said.

  10. Good for this family! We also have alot of mulch in our yard. It used to be planted with grass that was very scrawny due to the presence of multiple beautiful oak trees around and within our property. We put the mulch down in heavy traffics areas that used to be somewhat grassed, although they ended up being mostly southern clay. We love it! No more mud, less maintenance and we just lay some more mulch down every year! Please note we also have lots of garden beds in other areas, but we wanted some open space without having to deal with the nasty grass “trying” to grow in the part shade.

  11. I just had an ah ha momment. The article states:
    “The dispute began two years ago, when Quan and Angelina Ha tore out the grass in their frontyard”….”Soon after the city complained about the yard, the Has placed wood chips on top of the dirt”.

    Sounds like the Ha’s removed the grass and left it as bare dirt until a neighbor complained to the city, and the city had to use muscle to get the Ha’s to finish the job. If they would have spread mulch in a shorter time frame the neighbor would probably not have complained. If it was dirt, they didn’t water it. Which means lots of dust. What a mess to live next door to.

  12. Too bad the homeowners aren’t a little more design sensitive… It does sound like they started this project and either ran out of time, interest or money, and a front yard full of mainly bark mulch isn’t the most attractive thing in the world. For the amount they must have spent to have the fence design and installation, they could have very easily have had a lush looking drought tolerant garden established within a 2 year time frame using either California natives or a combination of drought tolerant succulents and Mediterranean Climate plants. It sounds like whoever they hired didn’t have much imagination as a landscape designer, or they were trying to do the most minimal, cheap landscaping possible by relying mostly on bark mulch and wildflower seeds. Having seen the video of the first effort, it was truly ugly.

    Also, it is not correct to call coastal California a desert climate; we are a winter rainfall Mediterranean climate, and there is sufficient rainfall to keep many plants and trees looking green year round if well chosen. The true desert climates of California are well inland beyond the coastal mountain ranges, not in coastal Santa Barbara,Los Angeles, Orange and coastal influenced parts of San Diego Counties. Only the most inland parts of San Diego County have a true desert climate.

  13. The Ha’s and yourself may not be reading the full content of the code compliance for the city including the fire code ordinance in regards to wood bark mulch.

    My area of California has adopted this ordinance and it certainly makes sense for a desert community that is prone to fires to adopt the wood mulch ordinance.

  14. People in many areas of this country are on severe water restrictions – with garden watering limited to as little as two hours twice a week with a hand held hose, or none at all. Gardens, trees and lawns are dying or have died, and wood bark mulch is very common now. It seems to me that your city codes need to be brought up to date regarding the use of this ever scarce luxury – water. Sue – Australia

  15. I second what David said– we don’t have a desert climate and many plants stay green on just winter rainfall. Rainfall has been about average this winter. That means that waste and fallow places are emerald green with introduced annual grasses and flowering weeds. You can see a green fuzz in the photo of the Ha yard. That is probably a mixture of introduced grasses, predominately two grasses called foxtail and rip-gut brome, both of which have vicious awns and will be tinder dry by fire season.

    It’s also likely that the neighborhood has foreclosed houses in it, like most neighborhoods do these days. Getting banks to keep up their properties has become a major issue. The Ha family’s neighbors may be hyper-sensitive to any yard that looks abandoned, and not have much patience for arguments about why that is OK in this instance. Once members of the public involve the city, the city has to enforce the regulations. Public servants don’t get to pick and choose which regulations to enforce, or at least they shouldn’t.

    I suspect this is a tempest in a teapot, compounded of misunderstanding and lack of communication on all sides.

  16. Amy I have to disagree with the spirit of your post. I live in the area, and the LA Times article doesn’t tell the whole story. These people took out their lawn, and had nothing–no fence, no xeric plants, no wood chips–nothing, just dirt–for two years. After notification from the city, they finally put down just wood chips, nothing else. It took further effort by the city to get the few plants they have now.
    This isn’t a case of “lawn police”. This is a couple who decided they wanted to save a lot of money by having a dirt front yard, and only reluctantly added a fence and a very few plants when forced to.

    And look again at the LA Times photo. There’s a big SUV parked in the driveway.

  17. Amy I have to disagree with the spirit of your post. I live in the area, and the LA Times article doesn’t tell the whole story. These people took out their lawn, and had nothing–no fence, no xeric plants, no wood chips–nothing, just dirt–for two years. After notification from the city, they finally put down just wood chips, nothing else. It took further effort by the city to get the few plants they have now.
    This isn’t a case of “lawn police”. This is a couple who decided they wanted to save a lot of money by having a dirt front yard, and only reluctantly added a fence and a very few plants when forced to.

    And look again at the LA Times photo. There’s a big SUV parked in the driveway.

  18. I am dismayed that people find this front yard offensive, maybe because I don’t pay much attention to my own front yard, which hasn’t been mowed since the lawnmower died a year ago, so the maintained garden is very small, hardly visible from the road.
    I think we have to give people a little more space in which to do what they must. With all the troubles people have, surely the looks of a front yard can’t be that important, and we certainly shouldn’t punish them for their efforts.

  19. Thanks David and Matilija for mentioning southern CA is not a desert environment. We do have a unique rainfall pattern, and also our urban areas have outgrown the water delivery system. Furthermore, many people have simply ignored water management on their residential and commercial properties because water has been relatively cheap. Even grass lawns can be managed in our area using 80% of ET.

    Also: I live a couple stone throws from the Has, my water bill is about the same as the Has’ new low low water bill (the one with practically no live plants being watered). My property has been described as a botanic garden, or sometimes a jungle. With a bit of planning, effort and maybe professional advice one can have a garden full of interesting plants here in So Cal using a reasonable amount of water.

    Oh, and we call wood chips mulch, but we wouldn’t go so far as to call them landscaping.

  20. We currently have a front yard of just mulch. Our water rates went up 60% and we don’t have the money currently to landscape, so we just got rid of the lawn. The mulch actually looks a lot better than the dead or overgrown lawns around our City so no one has complained. Eventually we’ll be landscaping with Native/drought tolerant edible plants.

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