Joe Grimm's no stranger to drought: He's been on the board of directors of the Springbrook Owners Association in Pflugerville, TX, for about 10 years. This season may have brought Texas some nasty storms, but the state's drought -- nearly five years long and counting -- echoes the seven-year drought of the '50s, which NPR called " the drought against which all other droughts are measured."
"We had numerous homeowners having their grass die and their trees die," says Grimm. Keeping the neighborhood green and staying within the city's strict watering guidelines grew difficult. The board removed 30 dead trees from the common area.
After some debate -- mostly about adhering to bylaws and architectural rules -- Grimm and his board passed extensive guidelines intended to promote drought-friendly landscaping in the neighborhood. It's called xeriscaping, defined by Clean Water Action as "landscaping with plants that do well in the local climate without requiring much, if any, additional water beyond normal rainfall."
But not all homeowner associations are as forward-thinking as Springbrook. Installing drought-resistant landscaping may seem a noble goal, but it upends years of tradition. After all, rocks, shrubs, and succulents aren't the flowers, grass, and vibrant lawns of the standard American suburb.
Can HOAs demand green lawns when there isn't enough water to keep them verdant? Several states, including Texas and California, say no, having passed legislation that prevents HOAs from fining homeowners who let their lawns go brown because of watering restrictions.
Motivated residents often find themselves frustrated by HOAs that won't introduce xeriscaping guidelines, but yet can't punish homeowners for refusing to water their grass. The result: brown lawns and an unhappy board.
"Grass is a big tradition, and it is hard for people to let go," says Ashley Carter, a water conservation specialist at the Santa Clara Valley Water District. But hope isn't lost: "More and more people are starting to understand that it's not appropriate in this climate."
Persuading your own HOA to "go brown" might be a struggle, but it doesn't have to be an impossible one. Use these expert tips to help you make your case.
1. Round up the troops
Even Marty Grimes, the Santa Clara Valley Water District's program administrator, struggled to persuade his HOA to adopt drought-resistant landscaping guidelines.
"Changing our landscape didn't even come up until I pushed the issue," he says. "They thought I was biased somehow, or just trying to push our programs."
Support from other members was key. "There were a few new residents who were very environmentally conscious and very concerned about the drought," he says. "They influenced the rest of the group."
Canvass your neighborhood for sympathetic homeowners, and work together to promote your goals to the rest of the group. "It always helps if there are a few committed people willing to take this on as their project," Carter says.
2. Emphasize green -- saving some green
Water prices will skyrocket as drought conditions worsen -- a factor Grimes calls the "clincher" in his own proposal, especially considering the myriad of other ways xeriscaping can save homeowners money. Less grass means less fertilizer, less mowing, and fewer sprinkler systems (or sprinkler system repairs). Also, drought-resistant plants require very little water compared to standard grasses such as St. Augustine, a thirsty species common in Texas and California.
For many residents, "their water bill is in their HOA dues," says Karen Koppett, another water conservation specialist with Santa Clara Valley Water District. "By taking out some of the lawns and putting in climate-appropriate plants, their HOA dues will stay low. That's a big motivator."
If long-term savings don't strike residents' fancy, there are immediate rebates available. Many local governments or conservation organizations in drought-stricken states have established programs to assist financially in replacing water-hungry grass. For instance, homeowners at Springbrook qualified for up to $500 for transitioning to a drought-resistant yard, and the Santa Clara Valley Water District offers a number of water-saving rebates.
3. Polish up those PowerPoint skills
"Present your case, and I think you'd be surprised at how reasonable boards can be," says Grimm. "If they don't have anything specific to look at, they can't pass it, can't vote, can't do anything."
Search local government websites for detailed drought-tolerant landscaping guidelines, an excellent starting point for your presentation. There you'll find information about hardy plants and grass-replacement programs as well as sample landscaping plans.
Koppett agrees. "Going to the HOA board of directors and giving a pitch is a great way to influence things," she says. Just make sure you're knowledgeable beforehand. (Want a template? Here you go!)
If your complex uses a property management company, you might want to make your case to it first. "They can do a better job of agitating the HOA board," Grimm says. Plus, if the company manages several HOAs across the state, it can develop guidelines to then apply companywide. If your push is successful, that's a huge reach and a big, important change.
4. Start with baby steps
Carter recommends starting with small changes in your neighborhood's communal areas, like upgrading the irrigation system to be more efficient.
"A lot of HOAs have a huge amount of lawn on site, and most of it hasn't been very functional," says Carter. Many neighborhoods have huge swaths of grass, prime opportunities for turf replacement and native landscaping.
"It's a lot of work for a homeowner to hire a contractor, but doing it on a large scale is much more cost-effective," she says. "There's more participation on the communal level."
This isn't to say you should sacrifice your soccer fields or communal park space: Replace decorative landscape around sidewalks or clubhouses and install water-saving sprinklers to decrease the hydration requirements of large grassy spaces without sacrificing their picnic-friendliness.
5. It's still OK to have a (small) lawn
Getting your neighbors on the xeriscaping train might take some persuading, but converts will come more easily if you remind them they don't need to give up all grass. There's nothing wrong with a small stretch of grass -- where else would you lie out on a sunny day?
"People are worried about giving up areas for their kids and dogs to play on," Carter says. "You can have a lawn. We're not advocating that all lawns are removed." Just make sure your lawn is responsibly sized and efficiently maintained -- for small grassy areas, experts at Water Use It Wisely recommend drip or bubbler irrigation, which uses less water than most sprinkler systems. Flowers and decorative elements can be watered by hand.
Your primary focus should be encouraging your neighbors to xeriscape the small, grassy spaces that "no one walks on except to push a lawnmower," Carter says. Focus on transforming the narrow strips of grass between the sidewalk and the street, or rarely used side lawns. "People worry about giving up that play area, but they don't need to," she says.
6. But even if you win, you might need to keep fighting
Even after Springbrook instituted its xeriscaping guidelines, Grimm estimates only a dozen or so homeowners have remodeled their yards (the community has around 400 homes). Change is slow, so don't be disappointed if it takes a while for your neighbors to adapt.
For Springbrook, drought conditions and water restrictions helped persuade some homeowners to adopt the guidelines. Included in notification letters to residents with unacceptable yards were the HOA's xeriscaping information -- and more often than not, they took its advice.
"We anticipated their response would be, 'Yeah, I can't get anything to grow because we have watering restrictions,'" he says. Sending them the xeriscaping guidelines "was the prompt that got them to do it."
Because many people assume the drought will eventually end, they either don't bother installing native plants or just continue as normal, blindly ignoring the realities of their water usage.
"People in general are very short-sighted," Grimm says. But eco-friendly landscaping is important even in times of plenty: Parts of the country like Texas and California are naturally drought-prone, and a time will come again when the water supply is threatened.
Now's the time to tell your HOA: Going brown is the best way to go green forever.
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