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Artificial Grass Law
LASN November 2015 Ordinances

By Buck Abbey, ASLA, Green Laws Organization, New Orleans

Calif. Assembly Bill 1164 does not define artificial turf. Some refer to synthetic grass (left) as the thinner artificial covering used to mimic natural lawn grass. Artificial sports turf (right) has a thicker polypropylene base, an infill of crumb rubber granules or other materials, infill (sand/silica) and a drainage layer.
Top photo: "Skagerak Arena turf" by Rune Mathisen from Skien, Norway - Nytt kunstgress. Uploaded by Arsenikk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons
Bottom photo: "Kunstgress" by Drguttorm - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons

"Artificial grass for landscape applications saves money, conserves precious resources and reduces your carbon footprint with 100% recyclable eco-friendly, water saving turf solutions."
-- Artificial Grass Manufacturer Advertisement, 2015

In most states landscape laws are written at the local level. These laws are part of zoning and therefore a strongly related to land use. Zoning defines specific areas on development sites where landscaping is required or habitat is to be protected and preserved. Design components within these local ordinances provide for such environmental services as buffering, screening, shade production, visual improvement and simply beauty.

Zoning law containing landscape tree and sustainability standards and other land use regulations constitute the primary police power designated to local government under state planning law.

State Landscape Laws
It is not common for a state to draft landscape laws affecting local communities, however state statutes affecting local landscape law are found in California, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Vermont and Louisiana.

California has the most far-reaching state law requiring the development of landscape ordinances. State law AB 1881 was formulated as an efficient irrigation control law, but also includes general site landscaping for buffers, screens, open space, tree preservation and parking lot improvements. Forty percent of all domestic potable water is used outside the home to keep plant material healthy. To reduce water consumption statewide, Governor Brown of California called for communities to cut potable water use on average by 25%.

As explained in my recent LASN ordinance column, irrigation use is to be highly restricted. The use of natural grass lawns are to be reduced in size and even discouraged in favor of drought-tolerant landscaping. Many homeowners are completely removing turf grass lawns.

California cities are going from green to golden due to water restrictions and the removal of up to 50 million square feet of family lawn.

AB 1164
Many local landscape codes require a certain percentage of the building site to be covered with lawn grass. Many of these local laws restrict the use of artificial plant materials, and specifically fake grass.

Assembly Bill 1164 makes changes to AB 1881. AB 1164, SEC 2, ? 53087.7 (b) allows communities to impose reasonable restrictions on the use of 'synthetic grass or artificial turf' on residential properties." They cannot completely restrict its use. Local communities may not "effectively prohibit the installation of drought-tolerant landscaping, synthetic grass, or artificial turf." It should be noted, however, that "synthetic grass" and "artificial turf" are not the same thing, although they share several chemical compounds. The law does not define these. Synthetic grass is a thinner covering used to mimic natural lawn grass. Artificial turf on the other hand is distinguished with a thicker cross section with more filler to provide better drainage for athletic fields.

The bill has been approved by the California Senate and Assembly and awaits the signature of the governor.

As pointed out in the previous column the solution to the problem of overwatering of lawn grass is design, not the wholesale use of artificial grass.

This bill to some extent promotes the use of manufactured grass. These are generally products containing chemical compounds derived from crumb rubber, plastics and artificial coloring agents. Many favor the use of synthetic grass or artificial turf. They maintain it will eliminate the use of water, preserving up to 21,000 gallons of water use per year on the average home. It would also reduce the need for carbon belching mowing machines and the use of chemical compounds, such as inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and other manufactured garden chemicals.

Some even think the manufactured product looks better than natural grass. Some even say it will reduce the need and cost for landscape maintenance services.

Other say, "Not so fast." This group maintains the artificial alternative may have potential environmental and health effects: increases in microclimatic heat, perhaps even regional climate change impacts and the inability to transfer stormwater and nutrients into the soil. Of course with a machine made product overlaying the ground no biotic activity will occur in the topsoil, including the creation of oxygen from vegetative root transfer.

Some worry that artificial grass may cause health problems, from afflictions like skin grass burns, to foot or bone damage. There are claims that crumb rubber emits organic chemicals as gases (volatile organic compounds or VOCs), that fake grass introduces into the environment heavy metals, carbon black and other known carcinogens.

Critics also point to the high cost of product and installation. Installation includes site preparation, base course grading and stone fine fill, carpet placement, fitting, jointing, stapling and finally filling with crumb rubber or other manufactured filler. Synthetic grass is not inexpensive. It comes in around $65 to $80 a square yard; that is about 10 times more expensive than natural grass installation.

Designers take a different view. Using very limited amounts of synthetic grass in combination with other materials can make a better-designed landscape. Native grasses, colored paving, drought-tolerant shrubs, native trees, local sands, gravels boulders, site furnishings can all be used in composition. If landscape architects include water collection and reuse facilities even more creative design solutions are possible for commercial facilities, homes, gardens and parks.

But most important, synthetic turf should not be used as a green carpet!

Perhaps it is time for California landscape architects to define through creativity an appropriate, contemporary, "postwater" California garden design paradigm, one that is sustainable, regionally appropriate, authentically truthful, chemically safe as well as essentially beautiful.

You may contact the author via email at, or call Abbey Associates Landscape Architecture at 225.766.0922.

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