Of all the responses I got to my most recent diatribe against Floratam grass last week, the one that really grabbed me came from Heidi DiGregorio, a retired accountant from New Jersey.
She and her husband, Richard, bought a house in the Villages of Avalon near County Line Road in 2008. Unsurprisingly to anyone familiar with Floratam, the entire lawn was killed off by hard freezes two winters ago.
The DiGregorios had never liked the stuff, hated the way it needed to be nursed along with big doses of water, fertilizer and pesticides. They wanted to replant a hardier turf, DiGregorio wrote, but "the grass down here in our development is mandated to be Floratam."
Wait a minute, I thought, isn't that against the law?
Absolutely, said Alys Brockway, Hernando County's water conservation coordinator, who pointed me to Senate Bill 2080, passed in 2009.
According to the website of the Pasco County Cooperative Extension Service, the law states, "a deed restriction or covenant may not prohibit any property owner from implementing Florida-friendly landscaping on his or her land." (Amazing, isn't it, that just two short years ago, we had a Legislature capable of constructive action?)
DiGregorio can't remember whether she was threatened with a fine or just told by homeowners association members that Floratam was required, at least in the front yard. Bill Rizzetta, president of Tampa's Rizzetta and Co., which manages the subdivision's homeowners association, said at 12:30 p.m. Friday that he doubted he could get back to me regarding the association's landscaping policy on such short notice. And he didn't.
Okay, but we at least know DiGregorio thought she had to plant Floratam, which is a message homeowners associations spread for decades.
They wanted uniformity and the best possible imitation of the standard Northern lawn — never mind that it's not natural in Florida.
And when it came to enforcement, they didn't mess around.
Several years ago, the local Florida Yards and Neighborhoods coordinator — the person responsible for teaching us about drought-tolerant landscaping — decided to practice what he preaches by redesigning his own lawn. There were lots of mulched beds and flowering native plants and very little turf. From what I've been told, it looked great.
And the homeowners association made him dig it up and replace it with Floratam.
That's how crazy the situation was. Even if you wanted to do the right thing, you couldn't.
And in some communities, you still can't, said current Yards and Neighborhoods coordinator John Korycki.
He still hears complaints from residents in the same tough spot as DiGregorio. Unfortunately, it does them no good to call the county Code Enforcement Department or the Southwest Florida Water Management District, he said, because lawmakers failed to assign an agency to enforce the 2009 law.
So, it's been on him to tell homeowners associations not to stand in the way of residents' pursuit of Florida-friendly yards. He's met with most of them in the months since the law was passed, and he thinks the message is sinking in.
He's heard far fewer complaints this year, he said. Even Timber Pines, designed and built out in the heyday of Floratam, is rewriting its landscaping rules.
Another big subdivision, Sterling Hill, didn't stop Pat and Dick Mundy from planting a drought-tolerant yard last year. Like the DiGregorios, they lost their yard to winter freezes. They had already replaced one Floratam lawn at a cost of more than $1,600, Dick Mundy told me, so they weren't about to plant another. So they have Bahia in the front and a garden in the back with native shrubs growing in beds of pine bark mulch.
Now that it's established, Mundy said, it's thriving.
The DiGregorios' sprinkler system went on the blink recently when they were in New Jersey. There are weeds and dead spots in their yard. And in last week's e-mail, Heidi DiGregorio wrote, "we wait for the next threatening letter about our lawn."