|By Mary Karish
Where I grew up in the mountains of Lebanon, in the Eastern Mediterranean, people grew two types of crops: one to feed themselves and their families, and the other to feed their farm animals. Any leftovers made their final appearance in holes dug up in the fields. I once asked my grandmother, “Why do we bury spent plants in holes?” She replied, “The buried plants are gifts to Mother Earth thanking her for the abundance she has provided. Mother Earth returns them back to us in rich soil so we may plant again and the cycle of life continues.”
If grass ever dared to come up in my village, the residents sent the goats to feast on it. No one owned a lawnmower. Had anyone ever come across one, they would have thought it was a vacuum cleaner. The idea of growing grass, fertilizing it, weeding it, cutting it and then bagging it, would have been considered pure insanity.
In July 2005, my family and I settled in Coppell, near Dallas-Fort Worth. We bought a house that came with a front yard. It was planted with grass and a bunch of meatball-shaped bushes and mustache hedges. Since I did not own goats, I gradually covered it with cardboard and filled the area with homemade compost. I also used stones as edging. My front yard sloped and I wanted to ensure that every drop of water did not run down the street. My organic vegetable planting got off to a good start. Three years passed since every blade of grass that once covered my front yard was delivered back to Mother Earth.
On April 15, 2009, I received a letter from the management company that ran our neighborhood Home Owners Association (HOA). The letter stated that I “was in non-compliance for changing the landscape without seeking prior approval from the Architectural Committee (AC).” I was given 10 days to send a submission form to the committee. I completed the form and provided a graphic design of my yard, along with an apology letter for my inadvertent mistake of not seeking the committee’s permission to plant useful and edible crops. I also noted my use of smart-scape plants, which followed the city’s drive to encourage residents to utilize native plants, just as the city had done along the newly designed median on Sandy Lake Road, a major city street in Coppell, outside the HOA’s deed restrictions.
The AC denied my request. The management company representative stated: “The planting design proposed for this residence does not in my opinion incorporate consistent community image.” It further noted that “similar plantings should be grouped and shaped to their unique feature as demonstrated in the street medians along Sandy Lake Road.”
This was not going to be a walk in the park. I called the city’s planning department, believing it could be of help in dealing with the HOA. The representative was understanding, but told me that while my actions were “in the right direction,” the city could not do anything because of “deed restrictions.” To make matters worse, he told me my HOA is the strictest among the ones registered with the city and advised me to work with them. He added for a good measure, “You can never win. They have resources you do not have.”
I was sad and disappointed. I went out to my yard, trying to envision the return of the dreaded grass. As I watched a hummingbird hovering over the Turk’s cap flower bush, I thought of my grandmother. My grandmother would have acted differently. Growing up during the Ottoman’s iron-fisted rule, when Arabic language was prohibited in public schools, she defiantly taught her students the Arabic language. She risked retribution, but was determined to pass the language identity to future generations. When I asked her, “How can one person perpetuate change?” her reply was an old African proverb: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” I knew what I had to do.
I sent an amended design plan using the features planted on the median of Sandy Lake. I also dived into the covenants, conditions and restrictions handbook of my subdivision. I wanted to have the same information and knowledge as the HOA board. In the meantime, Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom conspired to turn the winds in my direction. My front yard was featured on the front page of the local newspaper, was awarded the smart-scape designation and was selected to be on the city of Coppell smart-scape garden tour. The HOA was silent. Time passed and all was good.
Six months later, the giant awoke. I received a letter regarding my amended design plan. It said that I failed to send an appeal after my second request was denied and must “remove the alteration within 30 days of the date of the said notice or the HOA Board could resort to one of the following actions: assess a fine $200 or more, hire an attorney to obtain my compliance, cure the violation and assess all costs of correction against me and the property.” The letter spelt doom and gloom, but I was not afraid. I had done my homework.
We requested a meeting with the HOA board. The management company representative denied my request claiming, incorrectly, that because I was present at the August 2009 HOA board meeting when my amended plan design was reviewed, I had no right to pursue it further. Since I pay my HOA dues, I felt entitled to address the HOA board members.
I contacted the HOA board president, relayed the facts of my case and made another request to meet with the board. The management company representative called me and claimed it was a misunderstanding. She wanted to help me and that is why she took it to the board hoping for a “variance request.” She still maintained that I was in attendance at that August meeting. I asked her to review the minutes of the meeting and let me know what I said at the time. I never heard back.
My husband and I went to the HOA board meeting armed with factual knowledge. My husband and I read off the relevant parts of the CC&Rs. The AC should have relayed their second denial in writing within 60 days after date of submission. The management company claimed they sent me the denial letter in August 2009. I never received it. The CC&Rs also stated that when a member is in violation, she is given “a timely opportunity to be heard. The notice shall be given in person or sent by registered mail.” The board met without notifying me.
The CC&Rs design guidelines stated that if a front yard slopes, sandbags or bales of hay can be used to prevent run off. This left unanswered the question of how high they wanted the sandbags. It also stated that grass sod must be placed at a minimum, leaving the percentage of sod unspecified.
According to the handbook, all plant plans must be submitted to the AC. I displayed numerous pictures of yards in the subdivision planted with annuals and some with no grass at all, and asked for proof that those homeowners submitted a seasonal plant list every few months. We finally closed with a query. The management company representative had mentioned in her letter of August 2009 to “group similar plants….as demonstrated in the street medians along Sandy Lake.”
This statement contradicted the letter’s demand for grass because the median on Sandy Lake was grass-free. Instead, it was planted with native plants and trees.
The board’s final line of defense: a grass-free yard lowered the property value because it did not provide a gradual transition or uniformity. We presented them with the asking price and selling prices of two houses sold on my street during the worst time of the economic recession. The difference was an average of $4,500 and the time it took to sell was three months.
The president finally said, “We may agree to a design plan that incorporates ground cover plants in the easement and the area close to the sidewalk. Let us meet again when you have the plan ready.”
A month passed, and I sent an e-mail to the HOA president asking for a meeting date. I never heard from him. A few months went by and once again the management company sent me another “love letter” threatening sanctions. The lawyer I consulted at the time had told me that based on the actions the HOA had taken, I could “hang my hat” on winning the dispute. However, she advised bringing closure and suggested that I present a general design with no mention of plant varieties.
The HOA board members voted 2 to 1 to approve the revised design, provided no tomato cages were placed in the front yard and ground cover of verbena was put in the easement. The saga was over in less than 10 minutes. The HOA board president rushed through the vote and refused to wait for the remaining two members, stating the meeting started promptly at 7 p.m. I had won the hearts of two HOA board members.
As of writing this article, my yard has been featured on several garden tours and hosted more than 300 visitors. Strangers often stop by to look at my yard and frequently ask how I managed to circumvent the HOA. I tell them, review your CC&Rs, be sure you know your rights, maintain communication and, most important, be polite and respectful. HOAs are made up of people, many of whom are not aware of the enormous expenditure and water required to keep grass on life support in 100º temperatures.
I continue to honor my grandmother, who taught me to stand my ground and respect Mother Earth. It is estimated that more than 85 million U.S. home lawns make up about 30 million acres of grass, roughly the size of the state of Virginia (John Skow, “Can Lawns Be Justified,” Time, June 9, 1991). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, discards to landfill as of 2009 was 131.9 million tons. I take pride knowing I own one less lawnmower among the 40 million used in the United States and consuming 200 million gallons of gasoline a year (Michael Pollan, “The Garden’s Prospects In America,” Orion, Winter 1993). I represent only one household, but “if you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
The urban obsession of communities striving to maintain green lawns in 100º-plus temperatures is as crazy as trying to grow seaweed. Our connection to the English estates, where the concept of lawns originated, is as close as Mars is to Venus. Most of us cannot trace our roots on Ancestory.com. We created HOAs to police and enforce unrealistic expectations of lush green lawns. In addition to watering and throwing the grass trimmings in landfills, it often involves the use of poisonous herbicides and insecticides. Sustainable environmental practices are sacrificed for the sake of uniformity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, discards to landfills increased from 82.5 million tons in 1960 to 131.9 million tons in 2009.
The Texas legislature passed HB 645 on September 1, 2003, which protects homeowners who utilize plant materials that “promote water conservation.” It also allows homeowners to erect composting devices and rain harvesting systems on their property.
The Texas legislature also passed several bills in June 2011 limiting HOA power. HB 2779 and SB 101 allow homeowners to display flags and protect active military personnel from HOA-initiated foreclosure. HB 1228 requires HOA to obtain a court order to foreclose rather than the usual certified warning letter. HB 1821 strengthens residents’ voting rights, requires transparency of records and meetings. HB 362 allows homeowners to erect solar panels on roofs.
My case was further strengthened when I was awarded the smart-scape designation. Below are organizations that would certify your yard as well as provide guidance on the types of plants suitable for your location.
For additional information contact the HOA Reform Coalition at