Gehrke: Salt Lake City should revisit its ban on artificial grass and give some leniency to property owners

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Artificial grass in Matt and Jessica Broadbent's Salt Lake City yard on Tuesday July 9, 2019.

Update: On Wednesday, Matt and Jessica Boardman received an extension and now have until Aug. 12 to remove their synthetic turf and Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros has had discussions with other council members about having the council petition to revisit the city zoning ordinance.

Turf wars are nothing new in city government, but what about an artificial turf war? That’s exactly the fight Matt and Jessica Boardman have waged.

Back in 2016, the Boardmans bought a home not far from the 9th and 9th neighborhood in Salt Lake City, a brick bungalow with a xeriscaped yard and a tall tree that dropped big seed pods.

It was a headache to maintain — they couldn’t rake the rocks, a blower didn’t work and in the spring they were getting weeds coming up through the rocks.

They considered putting in grass, but worried it wouldn’t get enough light because of the big tree. And there was no way they were going to cut down the tree. So in the summer of 2017 they ponied up some $10,000 to install synthetic turf — no watering, no weeds, and it’s easier to maintain.

Robert Gehrke

“It’s the prettiest yard on the whole street. It has been for the last couple of years,” Matt Boardman told me.

But in February 2018, the Boardmans got a notice — thanks to a complaint to the city— that they were violating the ordinance which, enforcement officials said, bans artificial turf in front yards, although I’ve read it and it’s fairly vague.

Joel Paterson, zoning administrator with the city planning office, said the ordinance requires live plants over a third of a front yard. The rest can be covered with rock, gravel or mulch, but because artificial grass is not explicitly listed in the ordinance, it is not permitted.

“I really had no reason to think I was doing something wrong,” Boardman said. “If you read this not having any prior context you would never expect you couldn’t have artificial grass.”

For more than a year now, the Boardmans have been fighting the city and working with city council members to try to keep their grass. They appealed the city’s interpretation, arguing it was vague and outdated, but in March their appeal was rejected.

Now they’re at a crossroads. The city has given them until Thursday to rip out the turf or it will start fining them $25 each day until it’s gone.

“I don’t feel like we have worked with anyone in the planning office who cares and is a reasonable person,” said Boardman, who is hoping to get a last-minute extension. “I don’t want to sound rude or insensitive, but they’re like robots.”

This sort of conflict with the city is uncommon, but they are not alone.

About a year ago, while my friend Scott Platz was still in the hospital recuperating from a nasty bicycle accident, the guys from our softball team went to his house to finish work he had started on his front yard and they laid down artificial turf.

A few months later, Platz got a notice saying he was violating the ordinance. The city gave him until after winter to rip it out or, like the Boardmans, pay fines.

“Nobody really had a good reason for why,” he said. But earlier this year he complied and tore it up. Now all he’s got there is the gravel that was put down underneath the turf. It’s not really an improvement aesthetically, but it complies with the letter of the city’s zoning rules.

And then there’s Annie Hildebrandt, who lives in California but owns a half dozen rental properties just a short distance up the road from the Boardmans’ home. It was a big investment to water all those lawns, so she saved money for a couple years and bought turf.

“With every water bill you get it says, ‘Be water wise, beware of sprinkler use,’ so it just kind of went together. We see so much of [the turf] in California and it saves so much water,” Hildebrandt said

That’s a key point. This wet summer, notwithstanding, we still live in a desert and water conservation and sustainability should be more than buzzwords. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average U.S. family of four uses 400 gallons of water a day, and 30 percent of it is used to keep lawns and gardens green.

Faced with drought conditions, parts of Arizona, California and Nevada have all offered incentives to homeowners to ditch their water-guzzling grass and replace it with either xeriscaping or fake grass.

(By the way, all you mayoral candidates who might be reading this: Incentives for water-efficient yards would be a really good idea for Salt Lake City, too.)

In fairness, there are some concerns the city has about artificial grass that are legitimate. California has been studying whether contaminants leach from it, although that work is mostly focused on the shredded rubber used as a base layer for athletic fields — like the University of Utah football field.

Turf is not as hospitable for birds and critters, the city says, and it gets hotter than living grass.

But the city’s logic falls apart when you consider this: When Hildebrandt pulled up the turf from the front yard, she didn’t get rid of it. She put it in her backyard. And the city has no restrictions on that. And if the Boardmans don’t get their extension, they plan to tear their turf up and give it to Matt’s brother who, you guessed it, will put it in his backyard.

So if it’s about contaminants or heat or birds and bugs, then why is it OK in a backyard?

Ana Valdemoros, the city councilwoman representing both the Boardmans and the area where Hildebrandt’s rentals are located, said she was swayed by the city’s concerns.

“After meeting with them and getting some compelling reasons about it, we determined it might not be the best thing for the environment,” she said. “It was really interesting in this case to dig a little deeper and see what the real reasons were.”

Boardman contends the city’s policy is based on outdated information and needs to be overhauled.

Here’s the good news: The city’s public utilities department plans to work with Utah State University to better understand some of the issues related to synthetic turf and stormwater quality and the city plans to do a water conservation master planning later this year.

Then we can get a better understanding of the costs and hopefully the benefits of artificial turf. Unfortunately, for the Boardmans, who have fines hanging over their heads, it may be too late.