'Natural' yard could land owner in jail
 Article Courtesy of The Houston Chronicle

Posted March 24, 2003: 

Lisa Wright makes it a point to stop and smell the flowers every day. She never fails to hear birds singing. She seeks to be one with nature, and the place where she chooses to do so is her own front yard. 

That apparently doesn't suit the Sundown Glen Community Association. The neighborhood group has nothing against flowers or birds or trees, but it isn't happy at all about Wright's front yard. 

And because of that, she may be headed to jail. 

"They claim my yard doesn't conform to subdivision rules and want me to cut it down," she said in a recent interview. "But there are no rules that I'm breaking, and no one that I'm bothering. It isn't right." 

The community association is in Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 2 to get Wright to overhaul her self-described "natural habitat" front yard to bring it into line with the others in her small west Harris County subdivision. 

The association isn't telling Wright what to plant, though. It isn't even telling her what not to plant. It mainly wants less of the native Katy Prairie vegetation that's already there. 

"Ms. Wright entered into an agreed judgment, which the court approved, to cut back on the growth in her front yard and to keep it maintained," said Jane Janecek, attorney for the homeowners group. 

Wright's efforts so far to cut back her yard were found inadequate by Judge Gary Block in a hearing last week. He ordered her to return to court at 9 a.m. Thursday to start a 24-hour jail sentence for contempt of his previous order that she heed terms of the 2002 mediated agreement, or so-called agreed judgment. 

The slight, black-haired, 55-year-old defendant laughed nervously last week at the prospect of going to jail. But she said she remains dead serious about what she's doing and why. 

"I've never been in a spot like this, and I don't like confrontation," she said. "But when I'm pushed up against a wall -- like this -- if I'm wronged, then I'll fight. I'm not hurting anyone with my yard." 

Wright built her yard painstakingly over the past 10 years, starting from an almost bare-dirt yard with one broken Siberian elm sapling. Since then, she has cultivated a collection of red cedars, crepe myrtles and wood sorrel ground cover, along with an overcup oak, a Barbados cherry tree and a Mexican plum. Dozens of other plants, large and small, dot the yard. 

The effect is a small-scale version of the Houston Arboretum or, as she notes pointedly, "the kind of yard you see in parts of River Oaks or in places along Memorial Drive in the villages (area)." 

It's not, however, what you see elsewhere in Sundown Glen, an early 1980s subdivision comprising several square blocks of mid-priced homes located north of Katy Freeway west of Barker-Cypress Road. Most homes have ordinary grass lawns, a few ornamental shrubs and a shade tree or two. 

Wright's yard stands apart, but not sufficiently to warrant jail time, argues her attorney, Helen Mayfield. This week, in order to keep Wright out of jail, Mayfield plans to file a motion to stop enforcement of the contempt sentence and also a request for a rehearing on the agreed judgment. 

Wright admits her case would seem to be a run-of-the-mill dispute between a homeowner and a neighborhood association. 

Throughout Harris County, such groups and their property managers play major roles in providing amenities such as playgrounds and swimming pools that aren't supplied by cities or the county. 

They also enforce the deed restrictions that define permitted and prohibited land uses and set at least general standards for property maintenance. Deed restrictions are initiated by landowners and developers and, unless periodically renewed, usually expire in a specified period of years. 

Deed restrictions serve purposes akin to zoning regulations in otherwise uncontrolled parts of Harris County. They are a never-ending source of homeowner association friction. 

However, Wright's fight with her neighborhood association isn't the everyday variety for a couple of reasons: 

For one thing, she is a landscaper, albeit currently unemployed. She claims to know more than most about what constitutes "natural habitat." The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife awarded her a citation for her yard last spring. 

"This isn't just overgrowth," she said. "I put it together by design and I knew what I was doing." 

Secondly, Wright's case is a bit unusual in that she contends she didn't know exactly what that agreed judgment from last year ultimately would amount to. 

"I had a stroke and was still recovering when I was in court being told to do this and that or go to jail," she recalled. "I had some very poor advice." 

In fact, she recently hired Mayfield because she felt she earlier had been misled about what the agreed judgment called for. Both attorney and client say they wouldn't agree to the same judgment today. 

Mayfield thinks the agreement should be revised because it makes "unreasonable demands on the woman. It calls for an inventory of every single plant in her yard. No one else in the neighborhood has to do that. 

"It says she has to mulch -- what if she uses compost? It says her house has to be visible from the street, which it is. But no one else has to promise that." 

The heart of the pact is Wright's promise to keep her yard pruned, trimmed and maintained, but it sets no specific standards. 

Wright says she is maintaining her yard adequately; the association says she isn't. Wright says she's had support from her neighbors; the association says it's been getting complaints. There is evidence to support both sides. 

Whether she is being forced to meet tougher standards than her neighbors is moot, contends Janecek, Sundown Glen's attorney. "What she agreed to may go beyond what's in her deed restrictions," she said. "But it's what she agreed to." 

But Janecek conceded that deed restrictions often are generic and "rely on reasonable interpretations by reasonable people." Mayfield doesn't disagree: 

"I think the question here is really what's reasonable. This isn't."