Whether they have difficulty maintaining yards, or concerns regarding harmful nutrients found in fertilizers, homeowners increasingly want to eschew grass and implement synthetic turf, shells or rock.

However, St. Petersburg administrators consider those materials impervious, and harmful to stormwater systems, and only permit yards to feature a small percentage of nonpermeable landscaped green space. City council members, business leaders and zoning, engineering and stormwater officials discussed expanding grass-alternative allowances at a recent committee meeting.

Councilmember Copley Gerdes requested the business item due to confusion and concerns over what is permissible.

“This couple can no longer mow their yard,” said Gerdes, referring to a home in west St. Pete’s District 1, at the May 11 meeting. “And they would like to have a green yard. I just don’t think that’s unreasonable.”

City regulations state that “yards shall be maintained as permeable landscaped vegetative green space with the exception of driveways, walks, patios and similar paved areas … which areas combined shall not exceed 25% of the required yard area for corner lots and 45% of the required for inside lots.”

City code also prohibits using any artificial turf, shells or pavers on the right of way because the material will eventually clog and impede rainwater from flowing into the ground. Claude Tankersley, public works administrator, relayed that residents following the regulations could still pay higher utility rates due to the increased impervious area.

In addition, zoning manager Corey Malyszka noted that driveways and sidewalks count towards the 25% and 45% limits. St. Petersburg code enforcement has issued 12 citations in the past two years for installing artificial turf, with eight including the property and right of way.

Councilmember Brandi Gabbard called the regulations “incredibly confusing” and said constituents often ask about using shells in their yard.

“They look at it as, we live in Florida,” Gabbard added. “They put them in their yard, they don’t realize that they’re in the right of way or they’ve maxed out the 45%, and now we go and cite them.

“I’ve also had those same residents … that will then go and survey some city property and see that we have shells, and they want to say, ‘But you guys are doing it.’”

She noted that maintaining a lawn without using pesticides and fertilizers – which feed red tide outbreaks – is challenging. A lack of grass also leads to soil and sediment erosion.

Another example of an after-the-fact variance request that was denied. Screengrab.

Tommy Cassidy, a local business owner and member of the National Synthetic Turf Council, noted that water-challenged cities like Las Vegas are pushing residents to use faux grass. He and Gerdes relayed that the Tampa officials are reviewing related code enforcement and permitting processes.

Cassidy said new base materials and turf mitigate heat radiation aspects. However, Liz Abernethy, planning and development services director, referenced a Stetson University report highlighting how “widespread use in residential landscaping could exacerbate the heat island effect and require more energy to cool homes.”

Tankersley explained that turf allows water to percolate through if it is properly maintained. He said the city’s primary concern is that it reacts to dirt and grime like an air filter and becomes clogged and impermeable over time.

“The bottom line for us is that we don’t see artificial turf as a pervious surface,” Tankersley added. “It will form an impervious surface and eventually add more to our stormwater issues.”

Brejesh Prayman, director of engineering, said shells and rocks end up in roadways, block drainage systems, create maintenance issues and become slip hazards to pedestrians using sidewalks. Like Tankersley, he said it would take a substantial compliance and monitoring effort to ensure residents properly maintained alternative landscaping.

Councilmember Richie Floyd called the discussion and backup materials “fascinating.” While he supported his colleagues’ request for more information, Floyd said creating more avenues for stormwater to reach treatment plants is a primary concern.

Gerdes said he would work with administrators to identify more permeable and environmentally friendly products. Abernethy will increase communication and education efforts so residents and contractors know what is permissible.

The committee will revisit the topic and discuss additional information at a future meeting.



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