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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Landscapers In Drought-Stricken California Rip Out Customer's Water-Guzzling Lawns For Free

Landscapers In Drought-Stricken California Rip Out Customer's Water-Guzzling Lawns For Free

As California experiences the worst drought in its history, a growing number of California homeowners, like Peries-Clark, are ripping up water-starved grass lawns and switching to more drought-friendly landscaping. Their motivations vary: Some wish to make their properties more sustainable, while others simply want to save money on their water bills or take advantage of subsidies for lawn replacement. Whatever the case, the overhauls are a booming business.

The growth of California's landscaping industry is propelled by customers’ frantic desires to do their part to relieve the four-year drought, since 5 percent of the state's water is poured into the lawns surrounding residential and commercial properties. Landscapers have long been criticized for installing wasteful fountains and thirsty grasses in arid climates, but residents and politicians are now looking to them for practical solutions to help preserve a parched water supply.

Earlier this month, Gov. Brown issued an executive order with the first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history. The order requires cities and towns to reduce consumption by 25 percent and replace 50 million square feet of lawn with landscapes that require less water. It takes 57 inches of water a year, or between 35,000 and 75,000 gallons, to maintain a traditional lawn, according to the Association of California Water Agencies.

Anna Peries-Clark recently signed over $7,853 in public turf removal rebates to a company called Turf Terminators. The company replaced the lawn in front of her Woodland Hills, California, home with a drought-tolerant design, at no cost to her.

Now, she’s unhappy.

"There's nothing pretty about it at all, it just looks blah," she says. “Now, whenever anyone says, ‘Should we use Turf Terminators?’ I say, ‘No, don't do it!’ "

Peries-Clark admits she received exactly what Turf Terminators promised -- a yard covered in brown mulch with a smattering of plants, instead of the more expensive crushed granite she admires in neighboring yards.

Los Angeles-based Turf Terminators has grown from three employees to over 500 in the past year on a business model that collects public rebates worth thousands of dollars per yard.

Trouble is, not everyone is pleased with the results.

"I've seen Turf Terminators," says Barbara Minor of Glendale, California. "In my neighborhood, a lot of people are doing it, and they just have the cheapest, ugliest plants. It looks like they throw them in randomly and pocket the whole rebate. I'm thinking, they're making such a profit."

Steve Tsumura, a resident of the greater Los Angeles area, used to drive across town to his parents' home in the Mission Hills neighborhood every few days to water their landscaping. He recently replaced the 7,500-square-foot lawn with a drought-tolerant design.

"At my parents' home, I actually shut the water off for a good portion of the year so I don't have to spend money on irrigation, but I lost two trees because they have to have water," he says. "I knew I needed to do something to reduce."

Customers like Tsumura have created an opportunity for longstanding landscaping businesses as well as brand-new ones like Turf Terminators.


Are there economic advantages to it? In some ways, there are," Jay Tripathi, president of a company called Gardenworks, Inc. in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, California, says. “Since 2010, our volume now is probably 2 1/2 times what it was then.”

Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association, says she expects demand for landscapers to continue to grow with the emphasis on water conservation and the recent upturn in the economy.

“They are hoppin’ busy,” she says. “The drought, for some homeowners and business owners, has been the tipping point.”

Barbara Minor had been monitoring the politics around the state's dwindling water supply with a wary eye when she hired a landscape design company in December to convert her 900-square-foot front yard into a drought-tolerant garden. She received a $3,000 rebate from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power for a job that cost about $20,000 in total -- the succulents that now dot her landscape can run as much as $50 each. Still, she's happy she made the switch.

"I did it to save water and to be a good citizen, and to take advantage of a very nice rebate they're offering here," Minor says.

Even before Gov. Brown’s order, many water districts and cities had begun offering residents cash to convert their yards to California Friendly landscapes. Tripathi says his company receives about 10 calls a week from residents interested in these incentives, but only about three of those callers will place an order after his staff briefs them on the full cost of removing turf and replacing it with carefully designed drought-tolerant landscaping, which typically runs much higher than the rebates available in the area.

Turf Terminators, however, has chosen a different approach -- the company focuses more on ripping out lawns than installing perfectly manicured landscaping. This strategy enables it to turn some of the state’s most generous rebates into profits by quickly stripping lawns and replacing them with cost-effective products from a streamlined catalog of plants and ground cover. The company offers free lawn removal to customers in the Los Angeles area, so long as they sign over their rights to a $2 per square foot rebate from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a $3.75 per square foot rebate from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The company’s Yelp reviews offer a mixed opinion of the finished product. Some customers have posted complaints alongside photos of stripped lawns covered in mulch and scant plantings, while others said they were satisfied with the company’s quick service.

“My concern about Turf Terminators is that they are ripping the public off,” Jill Locascio of West Hills near Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, says. “I drive around the Valley all the time, and I constantly see these god-awful front yards with a Turf Terminators sign on them.”

Turf Terminators reached out to Locascio through Facebook and offered to swap out the 1,300-square-foot backyard of her home for a drought-tolerant design. It sounded like a good deal, so she signed up. But when a representative showed up at her house and asked her to sign a waiver before any work had been completed, she refused.

She ended up applying for the rebate herself and contacting a company called Lopez Landscaping to do the work instead. On Monday, she received approval for a $5,000 rebate through the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power that she would have otherwise forfeited to Turf Terminators.

“Even if it's not enough, I'll pay the difference because it totally makes sense,” she says. The changes should save her $250 a month on her water bill.

Though Giarde of the landscape contractors association would not comment on any company in particular, she warns against services that focus too intensely on turf removal instead of the plants and materials that will replace it.

“With the increase in interest, there's going to be a lot of folks coming out of the woodwork,” she says. “I'm personally very wary and warn the consumers of California to lend a critical eye and do your homework.”

Justin Finn, the head of customer service for Turf Terminators, called Peries-Clark the day after she posted a review to Yelp complaining about her bare yard. He promised that the company would upgrade the mulch on her property to a material of her choice if it was selected from their catalog or supplied by her.

The company did not respond to a request for comment for this story from International Business Times.

Tsumura asked Turf Terminators to rip up the lawn around his parents’ home in Mission Hills. He says workers installed a timer along with a new drip irrigation system that has saved him from making many trips out to the house to water the yard. His only complaint is that a mole has started to eat a few of the plants the company left behind.

“They made a profit,” he says. ”They’re in the business to make money, but I got what I needed done, so I'm happy with it.”

Lorianne and Tibor Baranyai were ready to shell out some serious cash to rip out their thirsty lawn and replace it with low-water landscaping.

Then came a better offer. As a result, a new L.A. company hatched by green investors has torn out their yellowing turf and put in a drought-tolerant yard — for free. And the couple walked away with an $850 cash dividend.

“Not having spent a single dime on it, I like it,” Lorianne Baranyai, 38, of Lake View Terrace said of her swath of decomposed granite and 120 new plants. “It saves water. We’re in a drought, and it’s the right thing to do.”

And an added benefit: “It’s free money.”

As water agencies across Southern California boost incentives for homeowners and businesses to swap out their water-guzzling lawns, Wall Street aims to help transform Main Street.

In exchange for lawn-removal rebates of up to $3 a square foot from utilities across the state — including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power — a company owned by Parvus Rex Capital of New York that invests in small private “niche” companies is making Angelenos a first-of-its-kind offer.


By using such incentives, Turf Terminators of Los Angeles says it will rip out grass across the region and replace it with drought-resistant native landscaping at no charge — then hand homeowners 25 cents for each square foot of lawn it yanks out.

“We’re trying to inform people that having a lush green lawn in Los Angeles right now is like buying a Hummer when you’re running out of fuel,” said Ryan Nivakoff, founder and managing partner of Parvus Rex Capital, from his home in Florida. “Our goal initially is to make environmentally focused investments. This particular project is designed to save water and to help residents save money.

“I would say we’re the only investment group using water rebates on a broad scale to save water and do it for free for homeowners and pay them money.”

Within two days, each yard gets a plain bed of one of four patterns of decomposed granite dotted with saplings of flowering oleander and other Mediterranean climate plants and grasses.

While austere compared with verdant lawns, the low-water yards can cut a homeowner’s general water bill by half, officials say.

“It’s gotta be the new direction for Los Angeles,” said Lane McDonald, 63, of Lake View Terrace, as he admired the handiwork underway next door. “Because (water) isn’t getting any cheaper, and the cost and bills only go up.”

As such, this may be the strongest offer by one of many contractors aiming to cash in on $3 per square foot — which increased from $2 on May 14 — now offered by the DWP to remove grass. The Metropolitan Water District has also doubled its grass-removal rebate to $2 for 26 cities and water districts throughout the region. Northern California cities offer similar incentives.

Some landscapers in Los Angeles said they’d never heard of any company to offer a one-stop shop for rebates, yard removal and climate friendly plant replacement.

But while they were impressed Turf Terminators could do the landscaping job and still make money, some were less impressed with the work itself.

They said the type of plants it used, such as oleander and kangaroo red, were non-native, and that decomposed granite allowed little water to permeate underground.

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“I haven’t heard of anybody doing that service with the rebate,” said Marilee Kuhlmann, past president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers, Greater Los Angeles District, and owner of Comfort Zones Garden Design in Santa Monica. “It’s a great idea. People in the city are at that place. It’s timely.

“But they’re not native plants — not friendly, not kosher.”

Last month, teams of laborers from Turf Terminators began stripping sod from a half dozen homes across Los Angeles, including one owned by former MWD General Manager Ron Gastelum, who sits on the company’s advisory board. Adán Ortega of the California State Water Commission also sits on the board, and Solar City, the nation’s largest solar provider, is a listed partner.

“Metropolitan is pleased with the increasing popularity of our turf-removal rebates and that the community is responding positively to this water-savings incentive,” said Armando Acuña, a spokesman for the MWD.

With California in its third dry year, water experts have urged Southern Californians to trade their lawns for less thirsty choices, such as artificial turf or native southwestern flora. Gov. Jerry Brown, after officially proclaiming a drought in January, called for residents to cut water use by 20 percent.

Water agencies say turfgrasses are among the neediest plants in any landscape, causing the average homeowner to run 60 percent of their water outdoors. They say paying customers to remove a Bermuda lawn — which can suck 45 gallons per square foot per year — is ultimately cheaper than shelling out the water to feed it.

Since it launched its grass-removal incentive program in 2009, the DWP has replaced 8 million square feet of lawn — 2.4 million square feet of residential and another 5.6 million of commercial turf.

The combined savings, according to DWP officials: 755.9 acre-feet of water per year, or nearly 250 million gallons.

Parvus Rex Capital has offices in New York, San Francisco, Houston and now Los Angeles. Managing a $250 million pool of assets in real estate, debt, private equity and venture capital for three years, the company then shifted its focus to green investments in carbon reduction, energy and environmentally sustainable farms.

Nivakoff, an avid golfer from Connecticut who hails from a family of cops, has lived in the West and knows about water shortages, recalling the day he was on a driving range and saw a sprinkler shoot water 40 feet.

Half hit the ground, half vanished into thin air, and he realized how much water use could be cut simply by better plant management. And with that, the math whiz from Wall Street saw potential gold in a withering Golden State.

The average homeowner might spend between $5 and $7 per-square-foot using their government rebate to rip out lawns and replace them with California-friendly yards, he said. But through economies of scale in labor and plant purchasing, Nivakoff said his Turf Terminators can do the work for far less, especially for parks, commercial landscaping and golf courses.

“We want to help the little guy, those who don’t make much money and need help on their bills,” he said. “And that will lead to larger commercial applications in Los Angeles, Southern California and statewide.

“We want to expand our footprint and gain significant exposure and water reduction.”

On a recent day, a green team of four Turf Terminators had just finished the Baranyai yard in a cul-de-sac between the 210 Freeway and the San Gabriel Mountains, and its “native” haircut sat in stark contrast to its neighbors’ lush — and expensively quenched — lawns.

Beneath two large trees lay a bed of brown, punctuated by 120 oleanders, knee-high boxwoods and an assortment of bluegrass, sundown and kangaroo red just purchased from a local nursery.

“Looks great, we’re very pleased,” said Gavin Gillette, Turf Terminators’ director of operations. “She asked for a yard so her kids can play. I think she’ll be very happy.”

And she was — though it took some getting used to, she said, as the new turf attracted a few cats from their Northeast Valley neighborhood.

Having once spent $180 a month on summer water bills, the couple expects that will drop by two-thirds.

“I definitely would recommend it,” said Lorianne Baranyai, a property manager. “I found it crazy that my husband and I were about to pay $1,200 to have our lawn removed, and we get this job for free, a new lawn and money back.

“You couldn’t ask for more.”

In California, a lush lawn is something of a status symbol -- but its upkeep uses a lot of water. Now that the drought-stricken state is under mandatory water restrictions for the first time, some residents are considering giving up their green yards. And some local companies are making it easier for them to bite that bullet.

"About two years ago, I was talking to a customer, and they wanted to know what they could do to save water," Paul Helen, general manager of Modesto Landscapes in Modesto, California, told The Huffington Post. "And off the cuff I said, 'You’re doing something good, so I’ll do something good for you too.'" So he offered to remove their lawn for free.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has mandated a statewide 25 percent reduction in residential water use, and citizens who remove their lawns can help the state meet this goal. Grass lawns account for 30 to 60 percent of residential water use in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Helen has continued offering free lawn removal to customers that hire his company, charging them only for the installation of a drought-tolerant landscape. Since a local news station featured his deal in a story last month, he has been offering a discount on installing those new yards, which include rocks, artificial turf, succulents and other California native plants that require little to no water or maintenance. So far, he says, about 15 customers have taken him up on his offer.

As California suffers through the fourth year of its worst drought in 1,200 years, customers are "extremely enthusiastic" about giving up their yards, Helen said. “There’s a heightened sense of what’s going on, and people are genuinely concerned -- they’re not just trying to save a few dollars on water.”

Installing new landscaping can cost several thousand dollars upfront, but the water bill savings add up. Helen said one of his customers who gave up his lawn now pays just 20 percent of what he used to on water and saves more than $1,000 a year.

Although there is a statewide program that offers rebates to residents who switch to more water-efficient appliances, there is not a statewide program offering residents money back if they remove their grass lawns. Some local water districts, however, have introduced lawn-removal rebate programs.


Three hundred miles south of Modesto, another company is helping people take advantage of such a program offered in Los Angeles County. Since last summer, Turf Terminators has been offering residents free lawn removal and drought-tolerant landscape installation, in exchange for the rights to collect the rebate money, which ranges from $2 to $3.75 per square foot of lawn replaced. So far, the company has replaced more than 3,000 lawns, Chief Operating Officer Julian Fox said.

Turf Terminators offers two preset landscapes: a Mediterranean-inspired yard full of fragrant, drought-tolerant plants like rosemary, sage and lavender, or a Southwestern-inspired yard with desert flowers and succulents.

Now that water cutbacks are mandatory and summer is nearing, Fox said he expects a big wave of Angelenos to go lawn-free, especially with the domino effect he’s noticing.

"There’s a significant network effect in terms of sign-ups," he said. "I think there was definitely some hesitation to being the first person on your block to transition your landscape … but what we’re seeing now is that for every project we do, we see about three to five sign-ups on that block, or within a pretty tight geographic area."

Turf Terminators reports that on average, homeowners who sign up for their services can expect to save approximately $2,200 per year on their water bill.

Fox said the work of his company is part of "a cultural shift in Southern California from the previously desired aesthetic of an emerald green lawn."

Indeed, the idea of a grass-free yard seems to be catching on around the state. Last month in Visalia, California, a group of homeowners held a lawn-free garden tour to show neighbors what going grassless looks like and to provide inspiration for homeowners who want to transition to more sustainable landscaping. And the city planning department in San Francisco is letting residents vie for a free drought-tolerant yard makeover through its Ugliest Yard Competition, The San Francisco Appeal reports.

Helen, of Modesto Landscapes, said choosing to replace a yard could lead people to other environmentally conscious decisions down the line. “If you start saving water on your front yard," he said, "you’re going to start thinking about how long you’re taking a shower.”

Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty Henry, Owner


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