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Apparently, outdoor drinking games need to be played on natural grass at the U. Or mud. Just not artificial turf.

At least five fraternity houses along University Avenue at the University of Minnesota are fighting with the city after the fraternities received zoning-code violations for installing artificial turf on their front lawns. The houses are losing the battle so far. But if they ultimately prevail, it could have ramifications across the city.

While it might look better than heavily trodden, beer-soaked sod, city officials say AstroTurf is isn't allowed in the way the fraternities are using it.

Despite recent advances that can make fake grass systems superior in drainage to natural grass, Minneapolis currently characterizes AstroTurf the same as pavement: an impervious surface. When the houses along fraternity row replaced their grass lawns with synthetic turf, they plowed through their permitted "impervious surface ratio," a technical term intended to limit the amount of runoff from rainfall or snowmelt (or any other fluid) that can tax a city's stormwater drainage system and potentially lead to flooding.

The fraternities were dealt their latest blow last week, when a City Council committee voted to recommend the council deny an appeal by Sigma Chi, which was among several local chapters ordered by the city to remove the artificial lawns. Sigma Chi has two buildings with artificial front lawns. The full City Council is expected to take up the issue as soon as this week.

Artificial turf outside Sigma Chi on Thursday.
Artificial turf outside Sigma Chi on Thursday.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Flip cup

For those keeping score, additional fraternities dinged for their crisply laid artificial turf include Delta Kappa Epsilon, Pi Kappa Alpha and Sigma Alpha Epsilon, according to Brad Ellis, who manages zoning administration for the city. Ellis said the city's action — issuing "orders of non-compliance" that do not include fines ― was the result of inspections prompted by complaints about the synthetic lawns beginning to pop up in this historic district last year. But those fraternities aren't the only ones to have opted for artificial turf.

On a recent morning, Chi Psi's front lawn appeared to be wet dirt with several large carpets of AstroTurf loosely laid out around a wooden table holding a set of dice. Pi Kappa Psi has installed artificial turf as well. And Theta Chi, tucked behind other houses on a spur of 19th Avenue, sports synthetic grass on a portion of its front lawn; an examination of property boundaries suggests much of the turf was installed on university-owned land.

The lawns stand out against the relatively homogeneous row of ivy-draped historic brick buildings decorated with Greek letters and accented with grills and the odd overturned chair, orphaned beer can or unattended keg. The centerpiece of most front lawns is a counter-height table of workbench-like design and varying levels of craftsmanship. It's where drinking games like flip cup are played; the evidence of foot traffic suggests this is where the action happens.

The synthetic lawns stand out because, well, they're not unkempt. No weeds, no mud or dirt, just a carpet of tightly cropped plastic grass blades.

"The lawn totally gets torn up," said Daren Jenson, president of the Theta Chi Alumni Association, which owns the fraternity chapter's house, where a part of the front lawn is now artificial turf. "We're just trying to make it look better."

Turf trending?

Decades ago when fake grass first made its appearance in sports stadiums and the occasional lawn, it was usually little more than a bristly carpet laid over concrete — neither sightly nor an effective way to avoid stormwater runoff. Local and state zoning drainage codes, including Minneapolis', treat the material the same way today. Not only does Minneapolis view the brothers' synthetic lawns as impervious, they're also in violation of part of the city code that says lawns must be natural plants; the artificial turf is considered an "obstruction" to each house's lawn.

But there's a move afoot to change that. From high school playing fields to urban dog parks, artificial turf systems that are installed on top of porous materials like sand are being adopted. That's not only because they're impervious to wear and tear, but because they can manage stormwater well.

A bill at the state Legislature this year sought to mandate that certain types of artificial turf be considered a best practice in the state's official Stormwater Management Manual, potentially opening new markets to the products. The measure was supported by the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association. The bill, which had a smattering of Democratic and Republican sponsors in the House and Senate, failed to become law.

Even though the city's codes eschew artificial turf, if the fraternities can win their appeal, it would become citywide precedent, Ellis said. In other words: If the City Council were to side with Sigma Chi, artificial turf would essentially be considered a drainable surface citywide, and it could become more widely used.

But that doesn't seem likely.

The artificial turf at Delta Kappa Epsilon on Thursday.
The artificial turf at Delta Kappa Epsilon on Thursday.

Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

Council members skeptical

Nick Valle, an attorney representing the fraternities, on Tuesday tried to convince members of the council's Business, Housing & Zoning Committee that the fraternities had installed modern, well-draining turf systems.

But city zoning officials responded that they have no way of verifying that, no training in how to inspect such systems and no assurance that artificial turf drainage systems don't break down over time and become no better than concrete slabs. Several council members agreed.

"Some turf might be a plastic bag laid on the ground," Council Member Jeremiah Ellison said. "Some turf might be highly sophisticated, installed in a sophisticated way. We wouldn't know the difference."

Ellison said it's possible the council might decide to change the city's codes on turf, but that's a longer process that would require study.

If the fraternities lose their appeal to the council, they could still apply for a variance, which would allow them to keep their fake lawns without setting any precedence.

If they're denied a variance, they could sue.