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Ordinance takes aim at thirsty grass

Water slurping plants, such as St. Augustine grass, would be limited to 50 percent of a new home's landscaping.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

What has been viewed almost as a birthright in Florida -- a new home swaddled in a deep green blanket of St. Augustine turf -- is heading for a government-mandated death in Pasco County.

The notoriously thirsty grass planted at more than three-quarters of new Pasco houses, St. Augustine sod has become Enemy No. 1 in the era of drought, dry wells and desalination plants.

While not banning St. Augustine outright, Pasco's new landscape ordinance, up for a final vote before the County Commission on Tuesday, clearly hopes to erase the sod's most favored status.

Bahia, the drought-resistant pasture grass beloved of beef cattle ranchers, looks to be the big winner from St. Augustine's demotion. Not everyone is happy with the turn of events.

"St. Augustine is a lusher looking grass. The Bahia is brown and terrible looking. It looks dead," said Pasco sod farmer Frank Balogh, who makes most of his money from St. Augustine.

According to the ordinance, St. Augustine, and any other water guzzling plant for that matter, can no longer dominate landscaping around new homes.

The county would limit such plants to no more than 50 percent of a yard, a far cry from the 80 percent to 90 percent coverage typical at homes today.

To enforce the planting guidelines, the county will limit the installation of sprinklers, other than those that trickle water, to 50 percent of a yard.

The law applies almost exclusively to new homes, tens of thousands of which are scheduled for construction, mostly along the State Road 54 corridor from Trinity to Zephyrhills.

Existing homes will fall under the law only if the owner installs a new sprinkler system.

Supporters of the ordinance stress that owners of new homes can still swathe their property with St. Augustine -- they just won't be able to water more than half of it.

"Without irrigation it's going to die," said Rick Lambert, the county planner who wrote the ordinance. "The whole trend is to move away from that kind of grass. That's the highest water user."

Needless to say, sod farmers are unhappy at the latest threat to their livelihood. Tampa approved a similar law ahead of Pasco.

The first blow came in the spring. After less than normal rain, the Southwest Florida Water Management District ordered the region to cut water use 5 percent. Pasco and neighboring counties limited irrigation to once a week.

Tampa Bay Water, the regional wholesaler that sells water to Pasco and its neighbors, estimates that a daily average of 20 to 25 percent of its potable drinking water ends up on yards. That's at least 32-million gallons day.

"Sod is a high maintenance item," said Balogh, the sod farmer. "But to put any limitation on what a person puts in his yard is communistic."

Balogh shouldn't hurt too badly from the ordinance. He supplies most of his sod to existing homes.

That's not the case with Robert Grimsley, whose 450-acre St. Augustine sod farm near Morris Bridge Road sells turf directly to professional landscapers and home builders.

Grimsley predicts the push toward native Floridian drought-tolerant plants will backfire. Before he moved into St. Augustine, also known as a variety called Floratam, Grimsley grew Bahia.

But mole crickets, the 1-inch burrowing insects that love to feed on Bahia's roots, drove him out of that line of work. According to the University of Florida, the bug has devastated hundreds of thousands of acres of the state's cattle pasture.

"Bahia gets mole crickets, and they eat you out of house and home. The mole crickets don't mess with the St. Augustine," Grimsley said. "They ain't going to get any of the Bahia to live."

The county's cooperative extension service points out that mole crickets, like the sucking cinch bugs that afflict St. Augustine, are controllable with insecticide.

And the extension service's Elizabeth Payne said the other drawbacks of Bahia -- that it yellows, yields to weeds and grows ugly seed heads -- are avoidable if you plant the right variety.

The same points are made by Jennifer Seney, a Wesley Chapel environmental activist who has lobbied against lawn irrigation for years.

Seney sits on the Citizens Ordinance Review Committee. When it reviewed the landscape ordinance, the committee recommended the county delay the residential planting requirements. Seney would have none of that.

"Bahia turns brown in the winter. Yes, it does. We have winter here. It will turn brown four months out of the year," she said.

"But if you do things right, it's a gorgeous green pasturelike lawn. Does it look green and manicured like you see at an English manor? No."

Some developers and builders have already gotten in line with the times.

Oakstead, the 1,200-home development northwest of SR 54 and U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes, advertises that it's planting its common area with Bahia and native Florida plants.

Builders in Oakstead, including such big names as Suarez, Lennar and Pulte, likely will follow suit.

The landscape ordinance also mandates more landscaping around stores, offices and apartment complexes, in parking lots and along roads near businesses.

But the same 50 percent guidelines for drought-resistant plants apply, theoretically reducing the need for watering.

"It's time to change and adapt because times are changing," Seney said. "We're running out of water."

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