Turf Terminators eliminates high water usage yard in Sylmar with a drought tolerant yard at no cost to the homeowner. The company uses rebates from the water companies to replace the yards.
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.
“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.”
By Dana Bartholomew, Los Angeles Daily New