HOAs must consider drought-tolerant landscaping under new law passed by Texas legislature

A bill designed to support homeowners who want to install drought-tolerant landscaping passed the Texas legislature in late May and is awaiting a signature from the governor. Senate Bill 198,...

A bill designed to support homeowners who want to install drought-tolerant landscaping passed the Texas legislature in late May and is awaiting a signature from the governor.

Senate Bill 198, sponsored by State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), prevents homeowner’s associations from having rules that forbid  homeowners from “xeriscaping” with native plants and hardscape instead of maintaining turf.

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Xeriscapes can include colorful displays of native flowers, mixed with rocks and native groundcovers, as this display at Austin’s Natural Gardener shows. (Photo: GreenRightNow.com)

Xeriscaping requires less water than almost any turf typically used for lawns, and helps Texas residents conserve on irrigation, which experts say consumes 50 to 70 percent of a homeowner’s summer water usage.

Watson’s bill, however, still leaves homeowner’s associations in control, because residents who want to adopt drought-tolerant landscaping must submit their specific plans for approval by the HOA.

The bill is a step in the right direction, but by leaving control with the HOAs it’s also “the usual runaround for homeowners,” said Beanie Adolph, the project director at HOA Reform Coalition.

The bill was “fantastic” until it underwent modifications in legislature, but now has added caveats, she said, so it remains to be seen how much it will encourage homeowners to convert to xeriscaping.

“They [HOAs] are not giving up their controls. Not one bit,” Adolph said.

Xeriscaping has become more popular, especially in the Hill Country region of Texas, and across the American West.

A xeriscaped backyard with a reduced area of turf. (Photo: Texas’ Smartscape program.)

Watson’s and a similar bill that started in the Texas House of Representatives were responding to constituents who want more landscaping freedom than their HOA’s typically confer. HOAs commonly require that front lawns be covered with turf, which generally requires more water to maintain than a landscape composed of natural shrubs and flowers, mulch and rock.

An Austin Homeowner’s Association, which rewrote its requirements in 2012 to embrace xeriscaping, was among the forces that likely hastened the xeriscape proposals in the 2013 legislature.

The Woods of Brushy Creek Homeowners Association passed new rules that would allow up to 75 percent of a resident’s front yard to be given over to xeriscaping, with only a minimum of 25 percent devoted to turf grass.

Brushy Creek required that homeowners submit their plans to the HOA’s Architectural Control Committee, showing the types of plants, ground covers and border materials that would be used. At the same time, it spelled out that ground covers could include crushed stone and flag stones and that low-water grasses  such as Buffalo, Zoysia and Bermuda were preferable to “thirsty” grasses like St. Augustine.

Native flowers,  such as this yellow Lantana, and ornamental grasses (rear) can be part of a drought-tolerant display.

Native flowers, such as this yellow Lantana, and ornamental grasses (rear) can be part of a drought-tolerant display

The new rules also encouraged homeowners to xeriscape the strip between the sidewalk and the street, because “these areas are difficult to water without street runoff.”

Brushy Creek placed limits on the number of “decorative” pots, urns and man-made ornamentation that could be part of the new landscape (only four could be visible), and it required prior approval for bird baths and statuary.

Even with its tight parameters, the Brushy Creek plan was a bold move away from the typical HOA requirements for extensive turf lawns.

The resolution extolled  the virtues of xeriscaping — water savings, conservation, lower pesticide use and “pride in knowing you are doing something substantial to protect our fragile environment.”

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