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Florida law would trump homeowners associations on lawn rules

Want to convert your thirsty grass lawn to something friendlier to the environment — say, some native plants that don't need as much water?

That has been forbidden by some homeowners associations intent on requiring strict adherence to the rules requiring all lawns to be bright green and St. Augustine.

But a bill that just passed the Legislature is aimed at changing the landscape — literally.

If Gov. Charlie Crist signs Senate Bill 2080, a homeowner anywhere could convert his or her lawn to a "Florida-friendly" yard without fear of running afoul of association rules or even a local ordinance.

The goal is to make sure Florida's lawns no longer gulp quite so much of Florida's water supply, especially during a drought like the one the Tampa Bay region has been dealing with, explained Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who put the landscape language into the bill.

"We need to make sure we're saving our water for human consumption and agriculture," said Baker, a gun-shop owner who just won an award from the Florida Ground Water Association.

While the bill passed both houses of the Legislature without a single nay vote, some homeowner groups are already voicing their displeasure.

Lush lawns are hallmarks of Florida's upscale communities like Silverthorn, a gated community in Hernando County, said Greg Kullman, a former Silverthorn board member. To forbid associations to enforce their rules "would be counterproductive to maintaining those standards," he said.

If Crist signs the bill, he predicted, "the governor would be committing political hara-kiri among the homeowners of the upscale communities."

In St. Petersburg's waterfront Venetian Isles subdivision, the rules require sodded grass — period. The association would not allow anything different, no matter what, president John Bodimer said.

"If it was in violation of the deed restrictions, we would challenge it," he promised.

Not everyone is so stuck on sod. Ted Thoman, president of Providence Lakes in Brandon, said as many as 50 homes in his 1,720-home community have already converted to Florida-friendly yards.

"I think we were ahead of the curve," he said.

The people opposing this bill "are fighting a rear-guard action," agreed Bill Bilodeau, president of the Pinellas County chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society. "People are particularly tired of dealing with lawns in this era of drought."

Last year Beacon Woods in Pasco County made headlines after a resident whom the association took to court over his brown lawn wound up in jail because he didn't resod his yard.

Beacon Woods president Tom Pohl said he has been following the bill. While he likes the idea of conserving water, he complained that the bill is vague: "Florida friendly — what do we mean by that?"

Until recently, it meant "xeriscape," and that has been a problem, contended Sen. Baker.

"Some people had originally equated this with people putting rocks in their front yards, and cactus," he said. "It's not about rocks and cactus."

Xeriscaping, a technique developed out West, means planting a yard that needs little to no irrigation. 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.

Current state law says that sod lawns established after October 2001 can be converted to xeriscaped lawns and homeowners associations can't stop them. This bill extends the protection to all lawns, no matter how old, and it substitutes "Florida-friendly" for "xeriscape."

Rather than list which plants fit the definition, the bill cites UF's nine principles of Florida-friendly yards, which include "right plant, right place" and "control stormwater runoff."

Baker's bill language says state water officials should even consider whether utilities are requiring developers to use Florida-friendly landscaping before deciding whether to issue them permits for increased water consumption.

If Crist signs the bill, predicted Bilodeau, "a lot of people will feel liberated."

Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, Cristina Silva and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report.

On the Web

To learn more about creating a Florida-friendly yard, including a list of the nine principles of Florida-friendly landscaping, and for up-to-date news on the drought, links to previous stories, tips for saving water, videos and more, go to our special online report, Tampa Bay Water Crisis.

Florida law would trump homeowners associations on lawn rules 05/14/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 23, 2009 12:19pm]
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