Homeowners caught in turf war over lawn care

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Andrew Meacham

Published March 23, 2008

TAMPA James Lyle watered his yard once a week, and got fined $1,000 by his homeowners association because the lawn was still too brown.

He began watering the lawn twice a week and got fined $100 by the Hillsborough County water department.

In frustration after the second fine, Lyle sprayed grass killer on his front lawn. He has since replaced the lawn and the association has switched property managers. The fine remains unresolved.

"It's been quite consuming, not only personally but financially," said Lyle of Riverview.

Lyle's situation, while extreme, is far from unique. Residents throughout the drought-stricken Tampa Bay area find themselves caught between aggressive homeowners associations demanding green lawns and county officials who insist on conserving water.

In the fall, Hillsborough County officials again pleaded with homeowners associations to show some leniency on brown lawns. In many cases, the request fell on deaf ears. In one of the more extreme examples, the Andalucia Homeowners Association is considering imposing mandatory landscaping requirements on 30 vacant lots in Apollo Beach.

"I moved here to retire and to go boating," said Leon Arndt, 61, who owns a lot in Andalucia. "I can't tell you how much personal time I have put in on this, and how much anxiety it has caused me."

A retired engineer, Arndt monitored his irrigation well for 18 months to estimate how much water it would take to irrigate all of Andalucia's vacant lots. The total: more than 57-million gallons in the first year.

Andalucia Homeowners Association president Mike Wall said the group has submitted the plan to lawyers, but declined to comment further.

Homeowners associations in Hillsborough County and beyond seem to be saying that drought or no drought, residents could do more to maintain their properties.

Jim Dixon of Valrico bought $100 worth of sod recently to avoid paying $50 a week in fines for brown spots.

His neighbor on Rockfield Loop, Diogenes Paula, spent $4,500 to replace his entire lawn.

"I'm thinking about moving out of here and buying a house with no neighborhood association," said Paula, 25.

Leaders of River Hills, the master association for 17 Valrico communities, say residents get time to fix their yards before imposing fines.

"While we're sympathetic and certainly respect the county's once-a-week watering restriction, it's an excuse for somebody to just let their yards go," said George Wilkins, the immediate past president for River Hills.

That's a sentiment shared by many, even in communities that have backed off fines for brown lawns.

"I don't think a lot of boards and associations get it," said Kathy Bramhall, a Pasco regional manager of Condominium Associates, which manages more than 150 associations in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Residents must still edge and weed their yards, but Bramhall said she doesn't demand a 100 percent green lawn. That rubs some of her board members the wrong way.

"They say, 'My neighbor's yard looks terrible. Why don't you send them a violation?' " Bramhall said.

Until this past summer, many Hernando County residents didn't even know that the region's water managers had issued restrictions, said Hernando water conservation director Alys Brockway.

"When I first started talking about that, I would get a really startled reaction: 'Are you kidding me?' " Brockway said.

As the restrictions dragged on, word of conflict within neighborhoods reached her office.

"People would call me frustrated, saying they are trying to comply and their homeowners associations are unhappy with the way their lawns are," she said.

But many associations and property managers contacted by the Times say they are getting squeezed between the county and negligent homeowners.

"If the county would just stay out of this, I believe the communities are capable of controlling themselves and taking the current water conditions into account," said David Krug of Unique Property Services, which has continued to fine residents among its 27 communities for brown lawns. "They are placing us in a very difficult position."

During a recent inspection at a Sun City Center community, Krug pointed at a patchy lawn.

"How can your two neighbors' houses be green and your lawn is completely dead?" he asked.

Owners of problem properties get a letter and 30 days to fix the site. After that, it's a $100 fine to start, plus $25 to $100 a day until the problem is corrected, Krug said.

Many associations say they are cooperating with requests not to fine residents merely for brown spots. Instead, they have urged neighbors to water trouble spots by hand, clean their sprinkler heads and replace St. Augustine grass with drought-tolerant plants or even gravel.

"On my own property, I have thought about changing my real grass to a nice artificial grass," said Carrollwood Creek Homeowners Association president Joe DeNuncio. "The lack of rain and watering restrictions would not affect me if I were to do this."

For most Tampa Bay area homeowners, there's a far more common lure: reclaimed water, which can be used without limit. But the days of unregulated use might end soon, at least in Hillsborough County, where authorities have measured consumers using up to seven times the amount of reclaimed water needed to irrigate their lawns.

The Hillsborough County Water Department is considering installing devices that measure soil moisture, Hillsborough water conservation director Norm Davis said. If there is already enough ground moisture, the sprinkler system won't come on.