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O.C. city sues couple who removed front lawn to save water

March 1, 2010 |  4:09 pm

Some Southern California cities fine residents for watering their lawns too much during drought conditions.

But in Orange, city officials are locked in a legal battle with a couple accused of violating city ordinances for removing their lawn, which they did to save water.

The dispute began two years ago, when Quan and Angelina Ha tore out the grass in their frontyard. In drought-plagued Southern California, the couple reasoned, the lush grass soaked up tens of thousands of gallons of water – and hundreds of dollars – each year.

Quan and Angelina thought they were doing something good for the environment.

“We’ve got a newborn, so we want to start worrying about her future,” said Quan Ha, an IT manager for Kelley Bluebook. 

But city officials informed the Has that they were violating several city laws that require residents to cover significant ports of their front lawns with live ground cover. On Tuesday, the two are scheduled to appear in Orange County Superior Court to challenge a lawsuit the city filed against them. They are fighting City Hall, saying their yard looks fine.

Soon after the city complained about the yard, they covered the dirt with wood chips, with help from neighbor Dennis Cleek.

“It’s their yard, it’s not overgrown with weeds, it’s not an eyesore,” said Cleek, whose own yard boasts fruit and avocado trees. “We should be able to have our yards look the way we want them to.”

But city officials determined the fix was not acceptable, saying city codes require that 40% of the yard be landscaped predominantly with live plants.

“Compliance -- that’s all we’ve ever wanted,” explained City Atty. Wayne Winthers. Last summer, the couple tried to appease the city by building a fence around the yard and planting drought-resistant greenery – lavender, rosemary, horsetail and pittosporum, among others. They sent a photo to city officials in October but say they received no response.

A few months later, they heard from the city, which said their landscaping still did not comply with city standards.

“They put up a nice fence but [the photo] didn’t show anything about how they had complied with code, as far as the frontyard goes,” Winthers said, “nor did it include a site plan.”

At the end of January, the Has received a letter from the city informing them they had been charged with with misdemeanor code violations and must appear in court.

“It’s just funny that we pay our taxes to the city and the city is now prosecuting us with our own money,” Quan Ha said. “Doesn’t it waste funds to go back and fourth in court, rather than sending pictures, e-mails and having phone conversations?”

Winthers said he hoped the city could work out a compromise with the couple. “We know times are tough, but we’re willing to work with them; we’d be more than happy to,” he said.

Meanwhile, the couple said there had been one bright spot: They reduced their water usage from from 299,221 gallons in 2007 to 58,348 gallons in 2009.

-- Amina Khan