Salt Lake City may resemble an urban desert, but that doesn’t excuse a lawn without green grass or lush plants.

That’s according to a city ordinance that one couple says encourages water usage in the second-driest state in the nation and others say prevents ugly landscapes in the capital city.

City ordinances require at least one-third of front and side yards, as well as the park strips between yards and the street, be covered in grass, trees or plants. Homeowners face daily fines of $25 per violation.

Lucy Parham and her husband Mickey Campbell were unaware of such a requirement. But when they tore up the weed-choked grass in front of their house and replaced it with rocks, mulch and low-water native plants over the past year, they got a letter from the city informing them they were in violation.

The city has encouraged residents to save water by using drought-resistant plants for decades. For some, like Campbell and Parham, xeriscaping was a chance to save water and money and add beauty.

“The flexibility to plant native plants and drought-tolerant plants and bring in attractive flowers not only saves water but also brings in honeybees,” Campbell said. “It just allows for more creativity.”

Photo courtesy of Mickey Campbell | A Salt Lake City couple say they face daily fines after city officials told them their xeriscaped lawn violates ordinances for not having enough vegetation.
Photo courtesy of Mickey Campbell | A Salt Lake City couple say they face daily fines after city officials told them their xeriscaped lawn violates ordinances for not having enough vegetation.

To Campbell, the new landscape was a work-in-progress. To an anonymous neighbor, the couple didn’t have enough plants and trees, leading to the complaint to the city.

The city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods sent a letter dated Sept. 8 telling Campbell and Parham they faced fines until they added enough plants on their front lawn and park strip. The two had until Sept. 22 to comply.

Enforcement action includes alerting prospective homebuyers of the violations if the property is bought after Campbell and Parham put it up for sale in January, according to emails from civil-enforcement officer Carol Gent that the couple shared with The Tribune. The city would put a “non-compliance” designation on the home, and a prospective buyer would have to sign an agreement with the city to add enough plants.

“I get it, it’s nice to have your patch of grass because it’s nice to lie on and it’s fairly attractive,” said Campbell, noting the couple maintains their backyard grass. “But when it comes to the non-usable space, how much time do people spend in their front yard and park strips?”

The complaint against the home is one of 313 this year, according to city data. Complaints about tall weeds are far more common, with about 1,200 made so far this year.

While Gent told the couple more plants would have to be added, and no fines were assessed because of a grace period, she also informed them that enforcement that ends in mid- to late-October will pick back up in the spring, when fines could be levied. Gent eventually closed the case after The Tribune called with questions.

While Campbell and Parham were scrambling to add juvenile plants before the end of the growing season, they hoped to find support from City Council members. But their District 5 Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall said Wednesday she supported the ordinance.

“I am not in favor of completely empty or gravel-covered front yards,” Mendenhall said. “I think the ordinance was well thought out.”

Several years ago the city scaled back the amount a yard must be covered in lush plant life, from 50 percent to the current 33 percent, according to Gent.

“We do want to encourage water conservation,” Mendenhall said. “Requiring 33 percent landscaping as a minimum is a pretty significant conservation measure.”

A spokesman for Mayor Jackie Biskupski also said the ordinance was fair and homeowners could add low-water plants if they wanted to get rid of water-sucking grass.

Campbell said the city’s approach means he and Parham had no options but to comply.

“It’s the type of thing we’re passionate about and care about and obviously is very personal to me in particular,” Campbell said. “At the same time, if it comes to compromising the sale of our house, we’re kind of trapped.”