Yard wars: California homeowner fined for replacing grass with low-water plants

By Denis Cuff / Contra Costa Times

SAN RAMON, Calif. — Fran Paxson figured to get a little credit and admiration when she replaced the old lawn around her suburban San Ramon home with drought-resistant plants.

Her public water supplier is even rewarding her with a rebate.

But her homeowners association — drought and a new state law be darned — is punishing her with a fine.

Paxson’s plight is turning up the heat in the conflict between the aesthetics and the thirst of water-hungry green lawns as California struggles through a third year of drought.

The Twin Creeks South Estate Homes Association in San Ramon informed Paxson three weeks ago that it is fining her $50 a month until she puts lawn back in 25 percent of her recently landscaped front yard. “It would look better,” the association wrote.

Paxson said the association board members said her lawn-free front yard would lower neighborhood property values.

“I think it’s ridiculous for a homeowners association to threaten a fine to force someone to put in lawn in a drought,” said Paxson, a retired elementary schoolteacher. “It’s just wrong on so many levels.”

She said she hired a contractor to overhaul her front yard with California native plants on drip irrigation to save money and water and provide a sustainable landscaping. The homeowners association told her she should keep grass in 25 percent of the area, but Paxson went ahead with the new landscaping anyway.

“I didn’t just cover my front yard with volcanic rock,” she said.

A spokesman for the homeowners group did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment. But in a July 31 letter to Paxson, the board wrote that it “feels that your front yard appearance would look better with the percentage of turf that was approved by the architectural committee.”

A board member of the East Bay Municipal Utility District — the public water supplier to San Ramon — said the board is out of line and setting a bad example for managing water in a drought.

“I am amazed by this,” said John Coleman, an EBMUD director from Walnut Creek, Calif. “The homeowners association is completely out of touch.”

Coleman said the board’s action appears to clash with the spirit of a new state law barring homeowners associations from fining homeowners for letting their lawns turn brown during droughts, and another in the works that prohibits fines for removing grass.

The language of a the new law authored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 22 “protects homeowners from being penalized for doing the right thing by conserving during the drought.” That bill took effect immediately.