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The grass is always greener with a $28,000 irrigation system

fr grassHaywood County commissioners decided this week to install an irrigation system for the lawn of the historic courthouse to ensure the downtown Waynesville icon lives up to its landmark status.


“The courthouse lawn is Americana. When you stand in the street and look at the courthouse you are seeing history, you are seeing justice, you are seeing the face of the county. If you are looking at a cow pasture, it doesn’t look good,” said County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger. “I think it is important we put our best foot forward.”

The price tag for the automated irrigation system will be $28,000, however.

The vote was 4 to 1, with Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick voting against the expense.

“Basically, I didn’t think it was a priority considering the other matters that need our attention,” Kirkpatrick said. He added that the mountains are largely spared from the extreme hot, dry conditions that can distress lawns — and besides, he doesn’t really think the lawn looks all that bad.

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The courthouse lawn has been in the limelight since early last year following a controversial decision by commissioners to cut down the large, stately sugar maples that shaded it. Improper pruning in decades past had compromised the trees and made them vulnerable to disease and limb fall, according to an arborist.

Commissioners also claimed the courthouse would look better without the giant trees engulfing and obscuring the façade.

And, they argued, the patchy, thin grass beneath the trees didn’t have a fighting chance with all that shade. Now, with the trees gone, commissioners are determined to have a prize lawn.

Kirkpatrick said he understands where his fellow commissioners are coming from.

“They were attempting to make sure the grounds look nice,” Kirkpatrick said. 

But the lawn, newly seeded just last year after the trees were cut down, hasn’t had a chance to prove itself on its own.

The generous rainfall and temperate weather of spring has the courthouse lawn looking pretty lush and green right now. The 1,000 pounds of lime and 200 pounds of fertilizer county maintenance crews have applied over the past two months probably helped some, too.

But spring is not the litmus test to judge by, Swanger said.

“Go out and look in July and August. If it is a wet year, you are going to be OK, but if not, you will be constantly struggling to have any kind of good-looking lawn,” Swanger said. “It is going to be brown.”

Still, lawn watering isn’t engrained in the fabric of mountain life as it is in hotter, drier climes. The sprinkler may be a requisite tool in the garden shed of a typical suburban home in the South, but here, irrigation is mostly something only golf courses do. 

For an expert’s take, we turned to Tim Mathews, a horticulturalist with the Haywood County Cooperative Extension. Cool-season fescues, the grass of choice in the mountains, are true to their name. The lawns might be in their element right now, but just wait, Mathews said.

“Right now everyone is mowing their grass like crazy,” said Mathews. “But when it gets into the heat of the summer, these cool-season fescues grow dormant. You can keep them lush and green if you start watering, but once you start you have to keep watering.”

Mathews hadn’t heard about the courthouse lawn irrigation system, but said he understands the motivation.

“I would consider that a high-value lawn because people see that. It is important to keep it looking good,” Mathews said.

Tall fescue needs two to three inches of water a week to be tip-top, and even though the mountains are moist, they don’t deliver consistently all summer, he said.

The courthouse lawn is the closest thing Waynesville has to a town square. It plays host to myriad festivities and gatherings during the year, ranging from ceremonies for veterans to political protests.

It’s lined with lawn chairs and filled with romping children during Friday night street dances in the summer. It’s packed with tourists seeking respite from the revelry during downtown festivals — and, previously, seeking a sliver of shade under the maples. Parades start and end there, and quick marriages are performed there.

Swanger points to all that foot traffic as more ammunition for an irrigation system. The grass needs all the help it can get to stand up to the trampling. In a weakened state, it can’t recover as well.

Mathews concurred again.

“When it gets really dry it gets brittle, and with all the festivals it can damage the grass,” he said.

Then the county would have the constant expense of reseeding and patching worn areas. 

“The value of it was apparent to most commissioners,” Swanger said.

The irrigation system will run underground with concealed sprinkler heads that lower into the lawn when not in use. It will cover the front lawn and both side lawns of the historic courthouse. The programmed system will be synced with a rain gauge so it will only run when needed, and only enough to reach that magic weekly rainfall need. It comes with a three-year warranty.

The low bid for the irrigation system was $24,000. But Building and Grounds Supervisor Dale Burris recommended a $4,000 contingency in case problems are encountered when running the pipes under the lawn, which includes burrowing under the sidewalks.

“Nobody knows what is located underground out here,” Burris said. The current courthouse, built in the 1930s, wasn’t the first one to stand on that site, and he doesn’t know if there’s remnants of an earlier foundation. 

Crews planting new trees on the lawn last year came across a souvenir to that effect.

“I still have a red brick that we dug up from the old red brick courthouse,” Burris said.

Burris said the irrigation system will be timed to come on during odd hours when there’s little fear of dousing the public. But, he added, as with any automated, electronic system, malfunctions are always possible.

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