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Standing up for Florida-friendly lawns not easy when HOA says no

Dominic Bruno, 78, and Ilona Bruno, 62, and their dog, Abbey, outside the Land O’Lakes home they’ve owned since 1997. He has spent at least $15,000 in his six-year effort to incorporate Florida-friendly landscaping into his property.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Dominic Bruno, 78, and Ilona Bruno, 62, and their dog, Abbey, outside the Land O’Lakes home they’ve owned since 1997. He has spent at least $15,000 in his six-year effort to incorporate Florida-friendly landscaping into his property.

All Dominic Bruno wanted was a lawn that was less work for him and took less water to maintain. That set off a battle that has lasted six years, generated two lawsuits and cost him at least $15,000.

Bruno is a 78-year-old former police officer who lives in Sable Ridge in Land O'Lakes. He has Parkinson's disease. His wife, Ilona, has terminal cancer.

In 2009, he replaced his thirsty St. Augustine grass with a Florida-friendly lawn, which began with a $780 layer of mulch. That turned Bruno's lawn into ground zero in a battle with the Sable Ridge Homeowners Association.

Today, he's still fighting, and his lawn is still largely mulch.

• • •

Bruno's case is just one in a string of pricey homeowners-versus-association lawsuits over Florida-friendly landscaping, a low-maintenance landscaping strategy that focuses on plants that sip, not slurp, the state's limited water supply. It involves more plants and different types of grass that generally don't gel with a HOA's vision of a unified community.

In 2000, the Florida Legislature gave homeowners across the state the freedom to install Florida-friendly landscaping, regardless of what is required by their association, calling it "a compelling public interest."

The statute bans homeowners' associations from preventing the water-saving landscaping, but it doesn't elaborate.

The trouble arises when citizens running homeowners' associations don't read the fine print, said Peter Dunbar, a lawyer and author of Law of Florida Homeowners Associations, the manual for most HOAs.

"I would think board members would have the tendency to frequently overlook it simply because it's not readily found in the chapter that governs all of their other affairs," he said.

Dunbar, an adjunct professor of HOA law at Florida State University, said homeowners attempting to install Florida-friendly landscaping are in the right, as long as they're within the specific guidelines of their association.

However, Dunbar said, homeowners can't expect the law alone to carry their case.

"In the vast majority of cases, these are disputes that arise without the guidance of an expert on either side," he said.

The only way to avoid these expensive legal disputes is for both sides to have all the details in writing before associations enforce anything, he said.

Otherwise, you end up with associations demanding illegal changes or homeowners with the "This is America, you can't tell me what to do" mind-set, as he put it.

"That is as wrong on the other side of the coin as a homeowners association not having appropriate rules in advance," Dunbar said.

That's where Bruno got stuck.

Bruno started with five emails to his HOA asking permission to plant a Florida-friendly lawn and, when they weren't answered, he began tearing up his lawn. That led to the first lawsuit for not getting permission from an HOA committee. He won, but spent about $15,000 defending the suit.

He tried four more times last year, even drew up a plan with the help of a Pasco County extension agent, but was rejected each time for not meeting the HOA's standards, which are not defined and are subjective, Bruno said.

At one point, the HOA notified him that it was going to re-sod his lawn at his expense.

At the time, Bruno was waiting with his wife for her surgery. He left to file for an injunction to stop the HOA, which, in turn, sued him for legal expenses.

The HOA's lawyer declined to comment.

• • •

Barbara Stage, an Orlando-based lawyer, has been handling Florida-friendly landscaping cases ever since the statute was changed in 2009.

"That's all I do 12 to 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week," she said.

She said that though it's rare for these cases to go all the way to court, a three-day trial costs one party an average of $130,000, including lawyer fees, court reporters, transcripts, exhibits, depositions and filing fees.

The best-case scenario for a homeowner is to win the legal fees, but even then defendants don't always recoup 100 percent of the costs, Stage said.

If the homeowners lose, they pay the association's legal fees, on top of their own.

Stage said her involvement in most cases ends when she sends a firm, legal letter stating the homeowners' rights to Florida-friendly landscaping.

"Most associations are smart enough to realize this isn't a good case to litigate," she said, "but you get those that are hard-headed and think they're going to get away with it and dig their heels in and fight to the end."

But for those that decide to fight, the cost can be overwhelming.

As the legal fees start to reach the tens of thousands, Stage said, some homeowners get to the point that they have to decide between spending money on the case or their mortgage.

"When you tell people they need to spend $100,000 or more to fight for their plants, they give up and that's the sad part about it," she said. "We're supposed to be saving the environment and people are giving up because they're being bullied into spending tons of money."

Like Dunbar, Stage believes the statute needs clearer language, specifically what homeowners can do when associations deny their application.

There are no clear steps for homeowners in this situation, but Florida-friendly landscaping devotees have flocked to a Facebook group — Homeowners for Florida Friendly Landscaping — to share their stories and get advice.

Jan Bergemann, who began an advocacy group and website — Cyber Citizens for Justice — in 2000 to deal with homeowner association issues, is among those championing a solution.

To him, the issue boils down to enforcement of the state statute, which happens only when home­owners have deep enough pockets.

"If justice depends on what you have in your wallet, then you don't really have justice."

• • •

Bruno, meanwhile, still has a dirt-and-mulch-filled front yard, because if he plants anything, his association has threatened to tear it up and have him foot the bill.

He said his applications to plant a new lawn are ignored or shot down for subjective reasons.

"It's like punching Jell-O," he said. "With no specifications, they can hold your feet right to the fire."

But for Bruno, there are more important things in his life, which is why his case is at a standstill.

"I've got to take care of my wife," he said. "She's first, you know?"

Standing up for Florida-friendly lawns not easy when HOA says no 08/02/15 [Last modified: Sunday, August 2, 2015 9:15pm]
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