DIY Turf Blog

New California law protects brown lawns from homeowners associations


Jessica Calefati recently reported that homeowners associations can no longer fine residents who fail to water their lawns during droughts under legislation sponsored by a San Jose lawmaker.

Reports earlier this year that a San Lorenzo association threatened in writing to retaliate against a man with a burned lawn inspired Assembly Bill 2100. But reports of those threats — the focus of at least one television news story — might have been inaccurate.

“The letters were about excessive weeds, not about watering,” said Susan Kleebauer, manager of the San Lorenzo Village Homes Association. “They were about the overall appearance of the yards. They have to be neat and maintained, even if not lush.”

Still, Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, said her bill “protects homeowners from being penalized for doing the right thing by conserving water during the drought.”

Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed the bill Monday, declared a statewide drought emergency in January and called on all residents and businesses to reduce water use by 20 percent. Campos’ bill builds on an executive order Brown issued in April barring homeowners groups from penalizing members who conserve water during a drought.

The new protections apply to residents of more than 50,000 homeowners associations across the state. The owners of roughly a quarter of all housing units in California — nearly 5 million homes — belong to such groups.

There’s some anecdotal evidence that a few Southern California associations imposed fines on residents with burned grass, but most groups are taking the drought crisis seriously, said Brian Kidney, executive director of a San Jose nonprofit that assists homeowners associations.

“We have to balance distaste for unsightly landscapes with the need to conserve water,” said Kidney, whose group, known as ECHO, supported the bill. “Most associations are doing the right thing.”

The new law does not prevent homeowners groups from fining residents who fail to maintain their yards by letting weeds and other plants grow out of control — increasing the risk of wildfires.

“Even when lawns are not watered, they’re not permitted to grow up like wheat fields,” Kidney said.

For most residents, that means trimming burned grass, pulling up dead plants or “zeroscaping” with rocks and wood chips.

In San Lorenzo, the homeowners group has been running articles on lawn alternatives in its newsletters and plans a sheet-mulching workshop this fall, Kleebauer said.

“We’re working very hard on landscaping alternatives,” she said. “During the drought, we are not telling people they have to water. It is not happening.”

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