Thursday, April 3, 2008
Carmel-by-the-Sea resident Sidney Widrow stoked controversy when he applied for a permit to install synthetic turf on roughly 140 square feet of his front lawn. The application has prompted debate among city officials, residents and City Council candidates.
“I stirred the pot on the lawn thing, and holy smoke!” Widrow says, sitting in the living room of his Scenic Road home.
Speaking at the Carmel Residents Association candidates’ forum Feb. 21, the three City Council candidates – Ken Talmage, Karen Sharp and Michael LePage – all said they would oppose allowing artificial turf in the city.
But Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud says officials might soon need to consider conflicts between green standards and the city’s strict design guidelines. “What about artificial turf for Devendorf Park to reduce maintenance and use of water?” she asks.
City design guidelines discourage front lawns visible from the street, instead directing homeowners to install landscaping appropriate to the city’s forest setting. But just outside the city limits, some homes already sport artificial turf.
Widrow drives a few blocks from his home to admire a Carmel Point property that represents his plastic green dream. The artificial grass in the front and back yards looks like perfectly manicured sod from the street. It lies flat when Widrow steps on it but springs back within a few minutes.
Widrow has set his sights on Heavenly Greens FieldTurf, a plastic material with a mesh backing that allows rain to percolate through. Underneath the synthetic grass sit layers of ground rubber and sand infill, stone and finally natural soil. The turf is expensive, he notes, but saves on the costs of watering and fertilizing.
Some residents reject not only the notion of fake lawns, but lawns in general. “Carmel-by-the-Sea is often described as a village in the forest, and ya don’t have grass in the forest,” says Carmel Residents Association President Roberta Miller. “We need to draw a line in the sand and hold steadfast and true to its village character.”
Planning staff recommended removing the fake grass from Widrow’s plans, or moving it out of sight from the street. “The artificial lawns are certainly much nicer than they used to be,” accedes planner Sean Conroy. “The material would probably be appropriate for the backyard.”
One of the front yards neighboring Widrow’s is planted with a mossy ground cover and drought-resistant plants. But several other Scenic Road homes have real grass front lawns. Widrow drives slowly down the street, pointing them out wistfully. He suspects the owners installed them without applying for permits.
“There isn’t a house in Carmel with a lawn that looks like a forest,” he says. “Putting in an artificial lawn isn’t anything to get upset about.”
The Planning Commission considered Widrow’s application in February. While commission chair Bill Strid seemed open to the fake lawn proposal, commissioner Robin Wilson was more skeptical. “I don’t think that artificial produce or vegetation is appropriate in a naturally preserved area,” he says.
The commission continued the decision to its next meeting on April 9.
The artificial turf debate is likely to intensify as the city faces looming water shortages. In a draft cease and desist order, the state directs California American Water to halve the amount of water it pumps from the Carmel River over seven years.