Salt Lake City’s landscaping rules could soon allow more water conservation

Stan Holmes was trying to help save the planet when he swapped the thirsty grass in his small park strip for compacted gravel.

After all, his Capitol Hill home is in the desert.

“(We) cut our water consumption significantly,” he said. “I feel like we’re kind of doing our bit to try to conserve water in what, the second driest state in the US?”

For years, the change drew no attention. But last fall, after Holmes joined a social media discussion about Salt Lake City’s enforcement of landscaping standards, the first violation notice hit.

Failure to comply with a regulation that requires 33% of a park strip to be covered by vegetation could result in legal action, a compliance officer wrote.

Since receiving the first notice in October, Holmes has been a vocal critic of the city’s landscaping rules and has called on officials to make changes.

“We’re trying,” he said. “Folks are trying to save (water). They shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

Holmes might get his wish.

In a report sent to the City Council this month, officials made the case for revising the landscaping regulations, acknowledging the existing standards run counter to water conservation efforts as the climate dries and the population mushrooms.

City code requires park strips, front yards and street-facing side yards on corner lots to have a third of the area covered by vegetation. The city paused enforcement in May while it reviewed the ordinance.

Between Jan. 1, 2021, and July 21 of this year, the city recorded 136 violations of park strip landscaping rules. Such violations could include not having enough vegetation, having too many weeds or leaving trash in the park strip.

A review of city records showed dozens of properties ran afoul of the vegetation minimum.

“Property owners are not typically aware that these rules exist,” the report noted, “resulting in frustration when they are trying to conserve water, an endeavor that is supported by most.”

What could change in SLC’s landscape ordinance?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City resident Stan Holmes’ parking strip, filled with gravel, is noncompliant with Salt Lake City code, Aug. 25, 2022. He made the change to save water.

City officials gave council members a few options to consider for modifying the rules, including a change in the way vegetation coverage is calculated.

Under existing code, tracking vegetation other than sod is tricky because it requires measuring the spread of individual plants. A new code could include a different metric, like requiring a certain number of plants per square foot.

Council members also could count shade from trees, potentially eliminating the need for vegetation on the ground.

Or, according to the report, the city could drop the vegetation coverage rules entirely, a move that officials warn would likely lead to a hotter environment and increased storm runoff.

Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, bristles at the assertion that landscaping in park strips does much to cool urban temperatures. He said the city has presented no data in the report to back its claim.

“That needs to come out,” Frankel said, “and not be used to prevent the modification of Salt Lake City’s byzantine landscaping ordinances.”

If residents want to remove the vegetation in their park strips and yards, he said, they should be allowed to do so. And if the city is worried about capturing surface water runoff, it should put more focus on getting rain barrels to residents to collect water during storms.

Artificial turf in SLC?

The goal of the review, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, is to look “even deeper at how we can not just encourage but insist on certain thresholds of conservation,” while still allowing lush landscapes.

Although the next steps are for members of the City Council to take (they’ll need to carve out time at a future meeting to discuss a new ordinance), the mayor has an idea of ​​what should be prioritized.

She wants to grow the city’s urban forest because trees carry a bevy of benefits, like cooling the environment. She also hopes to steer existing neighborhoods and new developments away from grass. She even supports an alternative that existing rules forbid: fake grass.

“The city should be allowing artificial turf use to an appropriate extent that still maintains our tree canopy and doesn’t leave us high and dry on our urban forest,” she said. But “Kentucky bluegrass cannot be the future of all landscapes in Salt Lake City.”

Most vegetation planted in the city’s developed areas consists of nonnative species that require extra water to stay alive during hot, dry summers. This type of landscaping, the city said, is the main contributor to high water demand in summer months that stress the capital’s supplies.

Future regulations, the administration argues, should be modified with an emphasis on climate-appropriate vegetation.

Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, agrees. And transitioning away from water-guzzling landscapes, he said, doesn’t mean settling for barren wastelands.

“Kentucky bluegrass is not native to the Wasatch Front,” he said. “So let’s figure out what is, and let’s figure out how we can start living in harmony with what was in the Great Salt Lake’s greater ecosystem before humans arrived.”

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