Beacon Woods, homeowner clash over landscaping change

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Jodie Tillman

Published December 8, 2010

HUDSON — James Gahagan knew the upshot of one 2009 state law: His Beacon Woods homeowners association can regulate but not prohibit landscaping that requires less water and fertilizers than more conventional sod lawns.

But after a year, the Beacon Woods Civic Association had not gotten around to putting its regulations in place.

Gahagan got tired of waiting.

So this past July, he began ripping up his sod and planting drought-tolerant Blue Pacific juniper, vinca and amaryllis, among others. He put down red mulch to cover the bald spots, which he says are temporary until the plants grow out.

He didn't tell the Beacon Woods Civic Association, but someone did. Last month a lawyer for the group sent him a letter: Either work out another landscaping plan with the board or resod.

"Since when does the state pass a law and you have unlimited time to put it in place?" said Gahagan, a 75-year-old postal service retiree. "It's not a reasonable amount of time."

James Gahagan of Beacon Woods took out his sod and replaced it with drought-tolerant plants and red mulch.

Untested in court, the "Florida-friendly" landscaping law is proving complicated in some older communities that have long required homeowners to maintain conventional green lawns.

Florida-friendly landscaping, developed by the University of Florida, aims to reduce the need for water, fertilizer, pesticides and pruning, all while still remaining attractive. Such landscaping is based on nine principles, including putting the right plant in the right place.

"There's nothing we see in the law that says homeowners associations can't enforce the rules they have, unless those rules are forcing someone to break the principals of Florida friendly," said Michael Molligan, a spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud.

The law (SB 2080) forbids mandates requiring inappropriate plant placement that results in needing excessive irrigation. It forbids, too, prohibitions on reasonable use of mulch, composting bins and rain barrels.

But the law doesn't stop home­owners associations from saying what color those composting bins should be, or where they can be located. And it doesn't necessarily stop the associations from requiring a certain amount of sod — unless that requirement forces a homeowner to use an excessive amount of water and fertilizer because of the location or soil type, said Molligan.

"It's really a case by case basis, and this is what makes it difficult for everybody," he said. "There really is no easy answer."

And there really is no enforcement of the law, said Jeannie Hayes, of Pasco County Extension Services. Some homeowners associations are still requiring thirsty St. Augustine grass on lawns — and without a court case, they can probably continue, she said.

Consider the example, she said, of a man who was building a home in east Pasco's Lake Jovita after the landscaping law passed. He wanted to put in Bahia grass, a more drought-resistant alternative to St. Augustine grass, but the developer said no. The homeowner eventually acquiesced rather than take the case to court.

Chris Dewey, a coordinator with Pasco County Extension Services, has been visiting many local communities to help them understand the principles of Florida-friendly landscaping.

The fact that no case law is established on the matter has created inertia on the part of some association boards, he said, but many of the newer and "more progressive" communities have already developed their own guidelines that fit the bill.

Ann Bunting, president of the Beacon Woods Civic Association, said her group is in the process of incorporating some standards and guidelines for Florida-friendly landscaping.

She said the current covenants don't prohibit many Florida-friendly practices, allowing, for instance, Bahia grass sod.

Among the proposed changes, Beacon Woods will consider alternatives to sod, though there will still be a requirement for at least half the yard to have low-level groundcover rather than mulch, Bunting said.

"We're actually proposing changes that will allow people to have other options besides lawns," she said.

But first, she said, the community will have to agree to amend its covenants, something that homeowners will vote on in February.

"We first have to have the deed restrictions themselves changed by the membership," she said. "Then you create guidelines based on approved deed restrictions."

Bunting said she expects voters to amend the deed restrictions; if they do not, she said, the board will have to speak with its lawyers about the next step.

Why didn't they begin that process earlier? Bunting said the association was waiting on Swiftmud to release guidelines, which it didn't do until this past spring, after the community's last election cycle.

"We had no option but to wait," she said.

Swiftmud's Molligan said that can't be an excuse. The agency did not come up with Florida-friendly guidelines — the University of Florida did.

Bunting said Gahagan, whose street has reclaimed water, should have worked with the association rather than doing his own thing.

If the proposed changes go through next year, she said Gahagan will have to make some changes — like adding groundcover — to bring his yard into compliance.

"They hear bits and pieces and think they can just act," she said.

Dewey said Gahagan might have a better case if he had followed the process laid out in the deed restrictions and first filled out an application to make the new Florida-friendly landscaping changes.

If the association denied the proposal, he said, it has to say on what basis. And if the association can't, he noted, then it is in effect prohibiting Florida-friendly landscaping.

Gahagan, meanwhile, said that not until last month's letter from the Beacon Woods lawyer did he learn that the board was putting forth new guidelines. The latest edition of the association newsletter, which came out last week, had a story about the changes.

Until last week, he said, "they've made no effort to notify the residents."

He doesn't plan to change a thing.