HOA forbids water-saving fake lawn

Les Bernstein thought he had found the perfect solution to his wretched lawn.

Unable to keep his fescue grass healthy under Raleigh's two-day-a-week water restrictions, Bernstein decided this year to go unnatural. He paid a Youngsville company more than $6,000 to install 400 square feet of artificial grass in his front yard.

“It's guaranteed for at least 15 years, and then it's recyclable,” said Bernstein, 65. “It's like the best you can do for the environment.”

But it turns out Bernstein's solution was too perfect, even for a meticulously planned community like Falls River in North Raleigh.

Soon after the fake grass was installed, Bernstein got a letter from the Falls River Homeowners Association informing him that it was unapproved material. The letter said that the association's covenants require fescue lawns.

“It just blew my mind,” said Bernstein, who lives with his wife, Audrey, and runs an embroidery business out of their home.

The association told Bernstein that to appeal the ruling he would have to get his neighbors to approve his new lawn. Getting the neighbors' approval proved to be no problem, Bernstein said. Most of them didn't notice the fake grass, he said.

When neighbors asked Bernstein how he kept his lawn so green, he told them his secret and invited them to touch the product. “They still didn't believe it,” Bernstein said.

Even so, the association's board of directors denied Bernstein's appeal last month, even after he submitted the required neighbor signatures and photos and a sample of the fake grass. The board ordered that the material be removed by Sept. 30.

Bernstein has taken his campaign to the Internet. Earlier this month, he launched a blog, www.greenraleigh.blogspot.com.

Synthetic grass has come a long way since the 1970s, when TV's “Brady Bunch” family romped on a comically fake Astroturf lawn.

In recent years, the industry has seen an explosion in colors and styles that look and feel like the real thing.

“You get in front of some really quality products, and it's freaky,” said Annie Costa, executive director of the Association of Artificial and Synthetic Grass Installers.

The use of artificial grass for landscaping purposes is still a rarity here. Bernstein purchased his Saratoga-brand lawn from AGL Carolinas, one of the few artificial grass installers in the area.

The lawns cost $8 to $14 per square foot. The only maintenance, proponents say, is occasionally raking and blowing off surface debris.

Fake lawns are most popular in California and the arid southwestern U.S., where homeowners receive government rebates for installing water-saving landscapes.

Even in those states, disputes are common between residents who install fake grass and homeowners associations. In 2007, the town of Surprise, Ariz., amended its municipal code to keep homeowners associations from prohibiting the use of artificial grass.

Raleigh has no such law. Ed Buchan, the city's water conservation specialist, said the city can't override homeowners associations.

Members of the Falls River association's board would not comment.