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Gravel lawn fans facing a rocky road

The subject at hand was gravel lawns.

I scooped up a handful of Matthew Masem's front yard, revealing a layer of asphalt beneath, while he explained why he has it.

Matthew and Nancy Masem bought their house on 40th Street N in St. Petersburg 17 years ago. They bought it the day they saw it, gravel lawn and all.

His lawn is 80 feet wide, and 50 feet from street to house. It is kept perfectly, with a neat row of stones along the curb, and a palm tree in the center.

"It's ideal for elderly people who don't like yard work," Masem told me. He is 72 but doesn't look it. He and Nancy were married 52 years ago _ on Dec. 7, 1941.

"It's less expensive," he said of his lawn. "No mowing, edging, fertilizing." Maintenance consists of raking it now and then, and pulling up any weeds.

No chemicals pumped into the ground, he added. No clippings or byproducts to go to the landfill. No water used on irrigation.

Matt Masem isn't alone. There are at least a half-dozen gravel lawns on his block, and he counts 19 within a two-block area in the Harshaw neighborhood.

Two of his neighbors with gravel lawns, Alfonse Perilli and Rodger Emmert, were on hand, too.

"They're handy if you have to leave for a couple of months or so," Perilli said. "Especially for people who live here a few months a year."

I told Matt, Al and Rodger that I had to be honest. I don't care for gravel lawns myself. In fact, they are one of my least favorite things about Florida.

But these are their yards. Not mine.

The reason for our visit was that Matt Masem recently found out, to his consternation, that gravel lawns will be illegal in St. Petersburg as of Jan. 24, 1996.

That's less than two years from now. If you have one, you have to dig it up and plant what the ordinance calls "permeable landscaped vegetative green space."

Permeable landscaped vegetative green space.

This was news to the people in Harshaw. It was news to me. It was news to everybody I asked at City Hall.

"I have to be honest with you," Mayor David Fischer told me. "I just heard about it the other day." He had not been elected yet when it passed.

This ordinance, passed by the City Council, took effect on Jan. 24, 1991. It gave everybody in the city five years to get rid of their gravel lawns.

I looked in the newspaper for that time period and found no mention of this ordinance. Apparently it didn't get much attention.

But it will get more now, as more and more people find out. There's less than two years until the deadline. Matt Masem says a landscaper told him it will cost $1,500 to redo his lawn. Al and Rodger, who have corner lots, might have to spend twice as much.

The mayor and the city attorney, Mike Davis, told me the ordinance probably passed because gravel yards, which usually lie atop asphalt or a plastic layer, don't let rain soak into the ground.

They said it runs off, washing a lot of gunk off the pavement and into our waterways. Runoff is bad for a lot of reasons, including being the single biggest cause of pollution of Tampa Bay.

The Harshaw folks told me this theory is wrong. A gentle rain does percolate through a gravel lawn, they say. Even when there is a heavy storm, the runoff collects in two neighborhood retention ponds, which are used for irrigation.

The neighbors got fired up again at the mention of the word "irrigation."

If we're trying to save water, they ask, why is the government ordering people to plant things?

"It seems kind of stupid to me," Alfonse Perilli said.

The mayor seemed sympathetic to the homeowners' plight and invited them to bring this up with the City Council. They've already done that. They'll be on the council's agenda this week.

At the very least, maybe everybody can find out the reasons the 1991 ordinance was passed. I'm sure there are reasons, but I couldn't find anybody in City Hall who was there at the time to explain them to me.

I hope it is based in science. If it's based on anything else _ like, say, the whims of people like me, who don't like gravel yards _ then I am not sure it is any of the government's business.

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