On the lawn of the Tuckaway Apartments at Frontier, it looks like Tiger Woods could play through at any moment.
Even in early February, the lawn at the West Lawrence apartment complex is golf-course green. Every blade of grass, every straight edge along a sidewalk appears to be precisely cut like a course only the pros play.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is true at Lawrence City Hall. Despite its fairway-like appearance, the landscaping job at this apartment complex near Sixth and Frontier is being labeled by City Hall planners as an errant shot.
The grass, of course, isn’t grass. It is synthetic turf, and other than for use on sports fields, the city’s commercial landscape code says it is prohibited. The city’s planning department is recommending the apartment complex, which was developed by a group led by longtime Lawrence businessman Thomas Fritzel, tear up thousands of square feet of the artificial turf.
“We do have concerns with the maintenance and the appearance of it over time,” said Scott McCullough, the city’s director of planning and development services. “We think there are some practical concerns.”
At their Tuesday evening meeting, city commissioners will be asked to decide whether the fake grass can stay or go. At stake will be whether several thousand dollars of the material — the developers haven’t provided an actual cost estimate — of the synthetic turf must be removed.
But an attorney for Fritzel said the commission really is being asked to figure out how comfortable it is with change.
“Anything new is hard to get used to, but it is successfully used in other communities that have more severe water problems than we do,” said Jane Eldredge, an attorney for the apartment complex. “It is a product the community really needs to consider because as we become a drier and drier climate, I think more people are going to be interested in it.”
Planning staff members are proposing a change that would allow synthetic turf to be used in bits and pieces as part of a landscaping plan, if it can be shown that natural vegetation can’t be feasibly grown in the area.
But the proposal would limit the use of the synthetic turf to no more than 10 percent of a site’s total. That is far different than how it has been used at the new West Lawrence apartment complex, which has used the material in place of natural sod around each of the complex’s apartment buildings.
McCullough said he understands the argument that the synthetic turf, most of which is made out of recycled materials, is environmentally friendly because it uses less water and chemicals than a traditional lawn. But he said for people who want to use less water and pesticides in their landscaping, there are more natural ways to do so.
“There are a lot of xeriscaping and natural plant options that can accomplish that goal,” McCullough said.
McCullough said he’s also concerned there is research suggesting the use of synthetic turf causes the soil covered by the turf to significantly degrade. McCullough said if an area covered by artificial turf were to be planted back to grass, the soil likely would need significant rehabilitation.
McCullough envisions future use of the product in Lawrence to be in places like shady spots next to a commercial building or in locations where natural vegetation is likely to get trampled.
But even then, the proposed regulations would require the turf to meet certain standards. They include:
- Installation by a licensed professional with special training in synthetic turf.
- A base that allows at least 14 inches of water to drain per square yard, per hour.
- A product that comes with at least an eight-year “no-fade” warranty.
- McCullough said the proposed code does give the city the ability to order a property owner to remove the turf and replace it if the color begins to fade or other appearance problems arise. But McCullough said he does have concerns about how easy it would be to enforce the provision, especially if the product wears out faster than what owners envision.
- “That has been one of the chief concerns. How often will it really have to be replaced?” McCullough said.
A test case
Eldredge is urging the city to allow the synthetic turf to remain in place at the apartment complex as a test case.
“I think newness is a big part of what is going on here,” Eldredge said. “I think once people see how it performs, they’ll be more comfortable with it. I think it would be a wonderful trial for the community, if we’re allowed the chance.”
Eldredge said the developers of the apartment complex mistakenly thought the code allowed the use of artificial turf at the apartment complex. The Oread hotel, which also was developed by Fritzel, was given a special exemption to use artificial turf in some limited areas.
But McCullough said the Oread’s use of the material didn’t clear the way for it to be used at the apartment complex. City inspectors notified the developers that the turf was not an allowed use once an inspection discovered it was being installed. The developers were allowed to continue installing the turf, with the understanding they could lobby for a code change that would make it legal. The city, though, issued only a temporary occupancy permit for the apartments based on the unresolved issue, McCullough said. Technically, the city could revoke the occupancy permit for the apartments if the synthetic turf isn’t removed.
Eldredge said the developers have lobbied for the artificial turf to remain because they are convinced it is more beneficial to the environment because it uses far less water than a traditional lawn.
“We think it is a good idea to conserve water, and we also want to remind people that what we think of as a natural lawn isn’t natural at all,” Eldredge said. “A lot of irrigation and chemicals goes into that type of lawn.”
The controversy at Tuckaway at Frontier has brought to light there is nothing in the city code that stops homeowners from installing the artificial turf on their property. The portion of city code that prohibits the material applies only to commercial projects and other large developments that require a site plan.
McCullough said the city isn’t proposing regulations to prohibit the use of artificial turf at private residences.
“I think time will tell whether we need to address it,” McCullough said. “If it did really catch on and start impacting issues like stormwater management, we would have to look at it.”
Ryan Domnick with Lawrence-based Low Maintenance Landscape said he thinks some homeowners will be intrigued by the idea.
“There are definitely quite a few properties in Lawrence where it is difficult to grow grass,” Domnick said.
At least one residential property in Lawrence has installed the artificial turf. The home at 641 La. has synthetic turf. The house is owned by Fritzel.
Domnick said he hasn’t seen the product enough to know whether it would be a good fit for Lawrence. But he says he’s interested in finding out.
“I hope the city allows for some properties to experiment with it,” Domnick said.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.