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Real Florida

His grass is always greener

Greg Cooper's plastic grass doesn't need mowing, water or chemicals. What it needs is city approval. Code enforcers favor a more natural nature.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published July 30, 2005


  photo
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
“I hate cutting grass,” says St. Petersburg homeowner Greg Cooper. So, for now, he doesn’t. He and Marley enjoy his green fakery — with a bit of shenanigans.

ST. PETERSBURG - Greg Cooper recently planted a perfect lawn. It is greener than any pool table, greener than any lawn you have ever seen. Chinch bugs leave it alone. Ditto for weeds. The lawn never needs water, fertilizer or pesticides.

One other thing. The lawn at 6547 Fifth Ave. N requires no mowing.

"I hate mowing," Cooper says. In the near future he hopes to demolish the hated Craftsman 6.0 Rotary Mower gathering cobwebs in the tool shed.

If his perfect lawn seems too good to be true, there is a reason. Cooper owns what may be the only plastic lawn in the city. If he has his way, he'll be selling plastic lawns to other homeowners for about $9 a square foot, including installation. An artificial lawn in a typical yard, for example, would cost somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 and be guaranteed to stay nice for five years.

"It will pay for itself," Cooper said. "You won't spend money on water, chemicals or lawn mowing. You won't pollute the air with emissions from your mower."

Alas. Cue the violins.

Fake lawns, he recently found out, might be perfectly illegal here. As you read this, the city of St. Petersburg is trying to figure out what is to become of the Cooper savannah. City code enforcers generally prefer their lawns to be natural and mowable.

Meanwhile, as summer rains pound west-central Florida daily, real lawns grow an inch overnight. On Saturday morning the city comes alive with the roar of lawn mowers.

But not at the Cooper adobe. The Coopers prefer drinking coffee, eating doughnuts and watching television in air-conditioned comfort on Saturday mornings. Marley, the family dog named after a reggae musician who appreciated a different kind of grass, is the only Cooper at all interested in lawns, real or otherwise. The black lab enjoys rolling around on the plastic stuff, but also uses it for reasons other than play.

"No problem," Cooper says. "You just hose it off."

A symbol of success

Lawns were once a simple thing. They were natural and beloved and also expected. A good lawn symbolized middle-class values and the Protestant work ethic.

The concept of a perfect lawn, a British invention, arrived on North American shores near the end of the 19th century. In Florida, only rich people such as Henry Flagler and Henry Plant had them at first. But after World War II, almost anybody could play at being Jay Gatsby. A lawn popped up with every little GI tract house that sprouted in every Florida burg.

In the 21st century, the state boasts 5-million acres of lawns, according to University of Florida scientists, with St. Augustine grass considered the dominant turf. Thick, spongy and deep, St. Augustine is both attractive and expensive to maintain.

Generations of teenagers have earned gas money by pushing belching mowers across St. Augustine from the Panhandle to the Keys. Floridians annually spend $7-billion on their lawns.

That number doesn't even include the cost of water. In west-central Florida, plagued by periodic droughts over the last decade, citizens still manage to devote 30 percent of their water to thirsty lawns.

A few rebellious Florida citizens, wishing to conserve water and avoid chemicals, started replacing their lawns with drought-resistant native vegetation in the 1990s. Many of them quickly ran afoul of municipal ordinances that required lawns. Now virtually every city in Florida encourages diversified landscapes as long as they conserve water.

But plastic lawns? Who in the world could love a plastic lawn?

Bruce Swift, that's who.

Don't mow the grass

Bruce Swift grew up in Chicago, moved to South Florida, sold real estate by the gazillions, then met a guy a few years ago named Dale Potts, whose business was installing artificial putting greens. Inspired, Swift started a spinoff business in Boca Raton he called Waterless Grass in 2003.

Now he has a second headquarters in Phoenix and says he has 115 Waterless Grass franchises in 33 states and nine countries. "New Jersey has 12 dealers alone," he says. "Water conservation is a huge issue in New Jersey."

Out west, in the desert states, where grass browns in seconds during the dry summers, some municipalities are offering tax breaks to citizens willing to save water by installing artificial grass.

One company in Phoenix, Legacy True Turf, installed 400 plastic lawns in 2004, double from the year before. In certain California cemeteries, the dead are not pushing up daisies. They are pushing up artificial turf.

The owner of Sunset Hills Memorial Park, resting place for TV cowpokes Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, boasted recently to a newspaper reporter about all the water he will save in the future. The turf is so realistic, Chet Hitt told the Sunday Telegraph, that his landscape crew accidentally mowed a patch. "They felt pretty dumb afterwards," Hitt said.

By some accounts, 5,000 U.S. homeowners have replaced natural lawns with plastic ones. No figures are available for Florida, but experts say artificial grass is a new phenomenon, until recently seen only on athletic fields.

"Synthetic turfs are better now than they used to be," says Grady Miller, a UF scientist who specializes in the real stuff. "But a lot of communities don't know what to make of it."

In 2002, a Palm Harbor woman was ordered by her deed-restricted community to remove her new $5,000 faux lawn. When Ed Ehlen installed $17,000 worth of artificial grass at his $4-million home at Marco Island last year, city leaders ordered Ehlen to remove it, citing environmental concerns including aesthetics and water runoff.

"This isn't Astroturf," Waterless Grass guru Bruce Swift says. "This is state of the art. Today's artificial turf is permeable. Rain runs right through it. You don't have to water it. You don't need pesticides. You don't clog the landfill with lawn clippings. It's the future."

Swift confesses to being passionate about the subject.

"Years ago, cities had laws against spitting on the sidewalks and sodomy," he says. "But those laws were changed, too."

Drawing attention

In early July, something radical happened in St. Petersburg. A couple of guys began attacking their yard.

They were Bruce Cooper and his stepdad, Todd Mack. First they tore up all the St. Augustine. Then they laid down a bed of whispy mesh over the earth. Next came a layer of crushed granite, leveled and leveled again. Later that afternoon they dragged mysterious rolls the size of cannons off a truck.

They removed the wrapping from the rolls. Pretty soon they were rolling artificial grass across the yard. On top of the turf - to weigh it down - they shoveled sand and microscopic pellets of recycled rubber. Afterwards they combed the artificial grass with a weird rake, and the blades of artificial grass stood at rapt attention.

Soon cars were pulling into the driveway. Perfect strangers demanded a closer look.

For the record, Waterless Grass at first glance looks like a lawn that has been babied through the years with a perfect mixture of water and fertilizer. On bare feet, it feels hotter than real grass. On second glance, though, it doesn't look quite real. Nor does it look ugly.

"I personally find it attractive," said Dale Armstrong, the coordinator of Florida Yards and Neighborhoods for the Pinellas County Extension Service. He'd heard about the plastic lawn and wanted to see it for himself. "But it will be interesting to see where this leads."

That, of course, is the chinch bug in the ointment.

As Cooper and Mack labored on their fake lawn, a city code enforcement agent stopped by and delivered what sounded like very bad news.

The natural order

The code enforcement woman told them about City Code Chapter 16.

City Code Chapter 16 was written long before the concept of artificial lawns became a blip on anybody's radar screen. City Code Chapter 16 basically says lawns are supposed to be natural. " . . . yards shall be maintained with a herbaceous layer of sod or ground cover plant material" is the nitty gritty of the ordinance. "Herbaceous" and "plant material" don't mean plastic.

Cooper and Mack visited City Hall and invited code enforcement bigshots out to see their plastic yard.

They visited on Monday.

"The problem is, the yard does not conform to code," said Tom Edwards, assistant director of code compliance. "We can't just change the city codes."

The City Council can.

That's the next stop for the anxious owners of Waterless Lawn. They want the City Council to amend city codes to allow alternative lawns.

Meanwhile, they have finished installing their fake lawn. Marley, their dog, continues to enjoy it, though nobody has seen a robin hunting for a worm.

The rains come down, and all around the neighborhood mowers belch and hiccup and sing their songs.

In the back yard, Bruce Cooper's neglected lawn mower suffers from atrophy.

He may have to dust it off before long.

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 29, 2005, 08:44:03]


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