Lessons from HOA lawsuit over Florida-friendly gras

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

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 properly maintained.

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.