Renee Parker was tired of the water bill and aggravation that came with maintaining a lawn of St. Augustine grass.
Last year she let the grass die and began replacing it with hardier plants that can survive off rain, including Argentine Bahia grass.
That seemingly simple act was a lot more than a hard day's yardwork. It was the opening salvo in the latest homeowner-vs.-homeowners association dispute to make headlines in Florida.
Bahia grass isn't permitted in Summerport, Parker's neighborhood in west Orange County near Windermere.
She planted it anyway, and now the association is suing her.
A local environmental activist said the Parker family is being "bullied by their homeowners association for converting to Florida-friendly landscaping."
That's how these stories typically go. The big, bad HOA is accused of intimidating, tormenting or otherwise oppressing the little homeowner who just wants to build a basketball court behind the garage. Or install a 13-foot flagpole to fly the American flag. Or display five pictures of nude women in the front yard.
These are all real examples.
We're supposed to sympathize with the homeowner whose athleticism, patriotism or artistic expression is being quashed by the HOA. We're supposed to wring our hands about the unfairness of it all and demand an exception to the rules.
But when you step back from the emotional appeal of these stories, you're left with a renegade homeowner who is flouting rules that are in place for a very important reason.
HOAs protect our property values. They maintain flowers in the medians and make sure the playground or the tennis court is kept clean. They make sure your neighbor doesn't construct a 10-foot tribute to Elvis on his lawn.
"I characterize them as mini-democracies," said Pete Dunbar, a Tallahassee lawyer who wrote the book on HOAs ("The Law of Florida Homeowners Associations," now in its ninth edition). "You have bought this property with the knowledge of what the rules are, and you are expected to follow the rules."
His sober reasoning makes the whining seem even more shrill. If you buy a house in a place governed by a set of rules, and you don't bother to learn what those rules are, then you really can't blame anybody but yourself.
If you haven't done this, call your HOA and request a copy today.
And keep in mind, when your HOA board denies your basketball hoop, it's probably not because board members hate basketball.
It's because the hoop is against the rules. And unless the rules are changed, the boards are obligated to enforce them consistently. If they don't, then all of the rules become meaningless, and suddenly your neighbor is no longer prohibited from building his giant tribute to Elvis.
And who wants that?
So when Parker thumbed her nose at her HOA and planted her Bahia grass, she risks allowing other neighbors to do whatever they like as well.
Parker says she has the law on her side because Florida prohibits HOAs from preventing homeowners from using water-conserving landscaping.
Her concern for our resources is admirable. We should all be doing more to conserve water.
But Doug Stafford, a vice president on the Summerport association, says that while the board prohibits Bahia, it allows zoysia grass. He says that is a good alternative to water-and-fertilizer-hogging St. Augustine. Eventually a court will decide.
The problem is that stories like this tend to perpetuate the belief that HOAs are dictatorships. You might have a different view when your neighbor decides to park his 40-foot motor home in the driveway.
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