If California cities are truly running out of money, how can some of them afford to maintain the yard police?

That's what I kept thinking when I read the new stories about the City of Orange prosecuting homeowners who replaced their lawn with drought-tolerant plants and bark.

Most of the newspaper and television stories have focused on the fact that an Orange couple, Quan and Angelina Ha, were busted for removing the grass from their front yard. I agree that it's absurd for an arid city, in which only about 12 inches of rain falls during an average year, to insist on turf in someone's front yard. But the Orange code doesn't mandate grass per se. It only requires that 40% of a front yard be landscaped predominately with live plants. How do you measure that 40%?  I'm sure the answer is somewhere in landscape architecture textbooks.

The more salient question is this: How can Orange afford to go around enforcing a landscaping ordinance against responsible homeowners?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of code enforcement. If somebody builds something without a permit, bust 'em. If a homeowner has stacked up the remains of cars and appliances in the side yard, bust 'em. If a slumlord won't maintain his rental properties in a safe fashion, string 'em up.

But if you saw the Has' front yard, you could tell the couple was not shirking responsibility. The fence they erected after the city first complained is very nifty. These new parents are simply trying to do the right thing environmentally and financially (news alert: water really does cost money). They told the L.A. Times that removing the lawn reduced their water consumption by 80%. That's worthy of a City Council commendation, not a code citation.

Last week, after the Has' landscaper planted 70 additional drought-tolerant shrubs and trees, the city relented and dropped its two-year-old enforcement campaign and a misdemeanor charge against the couple.  That's good news, since the city won't have to spend money keeping the Has in the slammer -- at a safe distance from their law-abiding, water-hogging neighbors. 

Orange City Hall is closed every other Friday, presumably to save money. Yet the City of Orange has enough cash not just to hassle people trying to do the right thing, but also to prosecute them for an alleged crime.

And we're supposed to believe that local governments are broke?

– Paul Shigley