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California homeowners warned about brown lawns

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Some homeowners following the state's new drought-conscious motto that brown is the new green are being warned by local governments that they could be slapped with fines because of those dried up lawns.

In an attempt to get Californians to take the drought seriously, the state water board voted this week for mandatory outdoor watering restrictions that carry the threat of $500 fines.

“Having a dirty car and a brown lawn should be a badge of honor because it shows you care about your community,” said Felicia Marcus, the board's chairwoman.

Not all communities see it that way.

Michael Korte and his wife Laura Whitney received a letter from the city of Glendora warning them about their brown lawn on the same day the state approved the fines. The letter said the couple could be hit with up to $500 in fines and possible criminal action if they didn't restore their landscaping within 60 days.

“Despite the water conservation efforts, we wish to remind you that limited watering is still required to keep landscaping looking healthy and green,” read the letter.

The couple thought they were being good citizens by reducing outdoor watering to twice a week, taking shorter showers and doing laundry less frequently. The state is recommending they go even further by watering lawns twice a month.

“My friends in Los Angeles got these letters warning they could be fined if they water, and I got a letter warning that I could be fined for not watering,” said Whitney. “I felt like I was in an alternate universe.”

The governor signed an executive order in April prohibiting homeowner associations from punishing residents for scaling back on landscaping, and a bill at his desk enshrines that provision into law. While both measures are silent on fines imposed by local government, the governor's office condemned moves punishing drought-conscious Californians.

“These efforts to conserve should not be undermined by the short-sighted actions of a few local jurisdictions, who chose to ignore the statewide crisis we face, the farmers and farmworkers losing their livelihoods, the communities facing drinking water shortages and the state's shrinking reservoirs,” said Amy Norris, a spokeswoman for CalEPA, in a written statement.

Local officials say conserving water and maintaining healthy landscaping are not mutually-exclusive goals. They caution that even in times of water shortages residents shouldn't have free rein to drive down property values and can use drought-resistant landscaping or turf removal programs to meet local standards.

“During a drought or non-drought, residents have the right to maintain their landscaping the way they want to so long as it's aesthetically pleasing and it's not blighted,” said Al Baker, president of the California Association of Code Enforcement Officers.

Anaheim resident Sandra Tran, 47, said she started installing drought-resistant landscaping after receiving violation notices from Orange County Public Works. She spent more than $600 on the changes as the agency mandated she water and maintain her yard in “a healthy green condition.”

Yet Tran drives home from work seeing conserve water signs flashing on the freeway.

“It's almost crazy because one agency is telling you one thing and another is forcing you to do the opposite,” she said.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, introduced a bill that would have prohibited local governments from imposing fees. She dropped AB1636 after cities in her district promised not to penalize homeowners for brown lawns during a drought emergency.

Brown was shocked when she heard the practice continued elsewhere in the state, and said she would consider reviving her bill in 2015.

“It seems to me those cities aren't using common sense,” said Brown. “It's too bad you need a law.”

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AP Writer Fenit Nirappil reported from Sacramento. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/FenitN

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