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Cutting outdoor water use stymied by landscape code

COMMERCE CITY

City rules don’t allow residents to tear out turf from grass strip between sidewalk, road

By John Aguilar

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COMMERCE CITY>> Derek Rinehart wants to disrupt the cohesion in his neighborhood — and he wants to save hundreds of gallons of water doing it.

But Rinehart’s desire to rip out the grass in front of his home, a ubiquitous feature lining the quiet streets in Commerce City’s Reunion neighborhood, and replace it with drought-tolerant vegetation is running up against a formidable obstacle: city regulations.

Commerce City’s landscape standards say that the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, also known as the tree lawn, “shall consist of turf grass and automatic irrigation system.” That means Rinehart’s plan to plant Delosperma Table Mountain — a drought-resistant, purple-flowered ground cover — across 130 feet of tree lawn on two sides of his house is on hold.

“I see a lot of towns spending a lot of money on xeriscaping and we’re fighting it for some reason,” Rinehart said, referring to the practice of mixing low-water plants with elegantly situated rocks to create a landscape more aligned with Colorado’s semi-arid environment. “We’re stuck in the past.”

It’s a policy that the 37-year-old father of one sees as running counter to a trend that’s been sweeping across the Front Range, and in Colorado writ large, as a historic 20-plus-year drought tightens its stranglehold on the state’s myriad waterways and reservoirs.

In 2021, state lawmakers passed a bill preventing homeowner associations from restricting residents’ use of xeriscaping. And last year, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill to create a statewide turf replacement program, which pays property owners to replace lawns with more water-efficient landscaping or offers matching dollars for replacement programs already in place.

Meanwhile, two metro area cities — Aurora and Castle Rock — passed ordinances in 2022 to ban or restrict thirsty “cool-season turf” on the lots of any newly built homes.

“We can xeriscape our lawns and still have them look nice,” said Rinehart, who hails from a much greener part of the country, Illinois. “It’s time to be environmentally responsible.”

Commerce City Councilwoman Susan Noble said she’s eager to have that conversation and expects the city to take a look at its landscaping guidelines in the coming weeks.

“We do allow xeriscaping of front and backyards — it’s only the parking strip (tree lawn) that isn’t, in the interest of cohesion for neighborhoods,” she said.

That visual uniformity is important to many in the city, Noble said. The councilwoman is also concerned about eliminating the cooling effect of turf grass and creating “hot zones” in neighborhoods. But overall, she said it’s high time to talk about potential changes to Commerce City’s landscape code.

City spokesman Travis Huntington said those conversations are coming to the City Council “very soon.”

“Tree lawns are where matters become more complicated, since that property is part of the right-of-way, where property owners don’t typically replace those plant materials, and the concept of uniformity is a greater consideration,” he said.

Kevin Reidy, water conservation specialist with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said many local governments on the Front Range still cling to “legacy codes,” like turf requirements.

“These legacy codes can take time to change but there is momentum across Colorado to change them to fit today’s climate and water supply situation,” Reidy said.

The 2023 Colorado Water Plan, he said, provides grant money to Western Resources Advocates to help two or three communities “create new landscape codes that would limit turf and implement 22nd- century climate-appropriate landscapes.”

Rinehart would like to see changes come as soon as possible. He got approval from the Reunion HOA to proceed last August but hasn’t been able to move past the city’s blockade. His outdoor water use would decline by 80%, he said, after swapping out the current sprinkler line with a drip irrigation system.

Using a breakdown of his water bill, Rinehart estimated that watering just the tree lawn adjoining his property used about 10,000 gallons a month on average last year.

“I’m trying to reduce my monthly bills and save water,” he said. “And if I do it, others might do it too.”

 

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