Article Courtesy of The Orlando
By Beth Kassab
Published September 10, 2016
The long-fought lawsuit between a homeowner near Windermere
and her HOA makes me realize three fundamental truths at the exact same time, to
borrow a phrase from the Hamilton soundtrack.
No. 1: This state's Florida-friendly law is neither very Florida nor very
friendly. The law, passed in 2009, is meant to protect homeowners who want to
use plants and grasses in their yards that need less water and fertilizer than
the typical lush St. Augustine lawn.
Considering the plume of
stinky guacamole-thick algae clogging our beaches and natural
springs, the intentions behind this law are spot on. Lawn
sprinklers are one of the biggest drains on our fresh water
supply and nitrates from fertilizer are significant polluters of
lakes and rivers that eventually spill into the ocean.
But the law doesn't go far enough. The statute nods to the
principles of Florida-friendly landscaping such as "planting the
right plant in the right place" to require minimal amounts of
water, fertilizer and pesticide.
But exactly which plants? And can some plants be banned because
of how they look? The law doesn't say. So when a couple in the
Summerport neighborhood about five miles west of downtown
Windermere replaced their St. Augustine grass with Argentine
Bahia, they were sued by Summerport's homeowners association.
The HOA said St. Augustine or Zoysia grass were permitted,
but not bahia. Bahia is very drought tolerant and doesn't need much fertilizer.
But it also doesn't have the lush, green reputation of St. Augustine or the
uniform look the Summerport association was going for.
Sadly, the four-year court battle has now ended in a secret settlement. So there
wasn't an official ruling on who was right. That's why the Legislature needs to
step in and clarify that certain grasses can not be banned so long as they are
No. 2: Homeowners need a better way to resolve disputes with their HOAs. Let me
start by saying that homeowner associations can bring a lot of value to
neighborhoods. I have written entire columns defending that value. If you're
glad your Seminole-loving neighbors can't paint their house garnet and gold or
put up their very own Bobby Bowden statute in the front yard, thank your HOA.
Rules are rules and they must be enforced. If they aren't, anything goes and
your property value plummets. But what was a sensible rule 20 years ago might
not work today. The Florida-friendly law is a good example.
The homeowners had no choice but to fight over their grass in court, which is in
no uncertain terms the most expensive way to fight about anything.
"They're banking on owners not having the money or the mental strength to hang
in there and fight over grass," said Barbara Stage, the attorney who represented
the west Orange County couple.
Homeowners need another way to settle disagreements. Why not a citizen board at
the state or local level that could help mediate conflicts and even fine HOAs
that abuse their powers? This is an area ripe for reform.
Why wait on Tallahassee, though? One problem across almost all HOAs is a lack of
participation among residents. If you don't like the rules that are being
enforced, go to the meetings and help change them. Or, better yet, offer to
serve on the board.
No. 3: We all need to change our attitudes about grass. Living up to a standard
of year-round, lush green lawns is no longer sustainable.
That doesn't mean we have to settle for ugly and unkempt. But we should be more
tolerant of temporarily browner lawns during the dry months. Another option:
yards with less grass and more coverings like jasmine, shrubs or mulch.
There are lots of factors that play into what will work in your own lawn.
Geography. Soil texture and PH levels. The amount of shade.
You can check out
FloridaYards.org for tips about what might grow best near you.
Subdivisions love to attract buyers with thick emerald blankets of grass. In the
future, though, buyers will value a clean water supply more.