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The Property Cops: Homeowner Associations Ban Eco-Friendly Practices

Homeowner association regulations often make environmental responsibility impossible by outlawing clotheslines, solar panels -- even gardens.
 
 
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The house Heather and Joseph Sarachek were building in Scarsdale, N.Y., was to be a model of green efficiency, complete with geothermal heating and cooling. Even the electricity to run the system would be clean, coming from solar panels on their roof -- but when the time came to install the panels last fall, construction came to an abrupt halt.

A local Board of Architectural Review refused to issue the Saracheks a permit for the solar apparatus, having received a letter from at least 15 neighbors -- among them doctors, lawyers and other presumably well-educated people -- arguing that the panels "would clearly be an eyesore in our lovely Quaker Ridge neighborhood."

This March -- four months, $20,000 in extra construction and legal costs, and 107 petition signatures later, and after agreeing to plant a screen of trees to hide their "eyesore" -- the Saracheks finally got the board's decision reversed. On a 4-3 vote, the victory was a squeaker. But it meant that the prosperous Village of Scarsdale, where the average house is valued at $834,000, would see its first solar panels ever.

HOAs: blocking the green path

On April 14, in more than 1,400 locations from coast to coast, Americans rallied around the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent within the next four decades. On April 22, the San Francisco Chronicle 's Earth Day editorial spoke for millions of us when it urged, "The whole planet, with billions of people and scores of governments, must work together on the same page. It's the only way to curb the global threats of rising temperatures, dirty air and polluted and life-depleted oceans. One day in late April isn't enough."

But too many cities, counties, towns and subdivisions are still working off the wrong "page" by banning ecologically sound practices and even mandating consumption and waste. Rooted in outdated aesthetics and plain old snobbery, those regulations make less sense than ever on a planet in peril.

The Saracheks and other Scarsdale residents live under citywide architectural restrictions, but 57 million Americans -- approaching one person out of five -- live in homes regulated by homeowner associations (HOAs). These private groups hold sway not only in gated havens of the rich but in many more modest neighborhoods as well.

HOA boards of directors are usually elected by residents, but their architectural review committees often are not. They have sweeping powers to enforce so-called restrictive covenants, which can control almost any aspect of the property, from the size of the house or garage down to details like changes in paint color or placement of basketball hoops. When a house is sold, the covenant goes with it.

The Community Associations Institute cites polls showing that 78 percent of homeowners belonging to HOAs believe the rules they live under "protect and enhance" property values. And when it comes to enforcing neighborhood behavior, it's what people believe that counts.

Many homeowners' associations post their covenants on their websites for the convenience of members. Doing some simple searches, I recently found and read a few dozen such documents. They are often highly detailed in describing what is allowed, what is not and what happens if you don't do what you're supposed to do or fail to do what they require.

I was looking for rules that affect a home's environmental footprint, and there were plenty. The most common restrictions were ones that prohibit drying clothes outdoors (effectively forcing the use of electric or gas dryers), forbid or restrict the placement of solar devices, dictate industrial-style lawn and landscape care or set a minimum square footage of floor space. Most also ban political signs, which itself can be an important environmental issue.

HOA documents are littered with those and a host of other bans on earth-friendly practices. Here are excerpts, taken directly from HOA covenants, that illustrate the kinds of prohibitions being enforced across the country:

Westerley subdivision in Sterling, Va.: "Solar panels and solar collectors are prohibited."

Camelot in Cottleville, Mo.: "Exterior solar collection systems, wind generator systems or other similar appliances are prohibited."

Peach Creek in Lisle, Ill.: "Compost piles may not be created on any properties ... A window fan is never allowed to be placed in the front windows of a home."

Quail Cove in Tucson, Ariz.: "Outdoor clotheslines are not permitted." (in a region where the great outdoors is like the inside of a clothes dryer!)

Crest Mountain in Asheville, N.C.: "The following are precluded: Outside clotheslines or clothes drying ... window air conditioning units ... vegetable gardens ..."

Tavistock Farms in Leesburg, Va.: "Vegetable gardens must not exceed 64 square feet." (With no more than 8 feet by 8 feet for growing vegetables, should they really be calling this place "farms"?)

Sun Valley in Waldorf, Md.: "No awnings in the front of the house will be allowed."

Suppression of clotheslines has probably received more attention over the past few years than any other type of anti-green restriction. Despite renewed interest in "solar drying," highlighted each April 19 by National Hanging Out Day, HOAs across the country are retaining their laundry-line prohibitions -- reflecting, say critics, their deep-seated prudishness and class bias.

People rarely confront HOAs directly over clothesline rules; most either conform or covertly disobey. Alice (not her real name) lives in the Lakeside Estates subdivision of Austin, Texas. Because her HOA bans outdoor clothes drying, Alice told me by email, she slips out to her back yard on summer mornings with one of those expanding "umbrella"-style clotheslines, puts it up, and hangs her laundry: "I put things out and try to get them in as soon as I can. I don't leave my clothesline out when it isn't in use."

Alice has received no warnings from her HOA -- yet. But you wouldn't expect such guerilla-style energy conservation to be necessary in laid-back Austin. Alice says, "Yeah, usually people think of Austin and they think of relaxed attitudes. But I think since the housing market boomed, it has made people a lot less relaxed."

Evidence to back up her theory can be found just across town, beyond the northwest corner of Austin's city limits in the middle-class suburb of Hunter's Chase. There, Jason and Lisa Spangler have been maintaining a garden of native wildflowers and other plants in their front yard for years. But they almost lost their native plantings in August 2002, when they received a violation notice on behalf of their HOA.

Jason told me, "Someone came by on a 'random inspection,' taking pictures, and thought it was some sort of grass and weeds." The Spanglers faced legal action if they didn't mow it all down.

They stood their ground, and the showdown came at a meeting of the municipal utility district that enforces the rules in Hunter's Chase. At the meeting, characterized by Spangler as "very unpleasant," he and Lisa were asked how they could have something "so ugly" in their front yard. No one seemed impressed that they used no herbicides, insecticides or fertilizers on their wildflower garden. "One board member said she had an art degree," said Jason, "and she could see that 'texture' of our yard just didn't look right."

To the board's chagrin, the Spanglers had backed up their claims with extensive documentation from the Native Plant Society of Texas. Lisa says board members resented what they saw as an intrusion by out-of-towners: "They asked, 'How much did you pay these people?'" But, said Jason, the evidence was overwhelming, and "they had no choice but to approve the garden."

Mandating consumption

West of Austin, in more drought-prone parts of the American West, lawns remain the rule. Although xeriscaping -- water-conserving landscape design -- is becoming more common, one developer recently told the Colorado Springs Gazette that for the most part, "There's no question. People want green, nice, good-looking sod."

Even if they don't want it, their HOA might well force it on them. And environmentally questionable rules can intrude well beyond the front lawn. For example, by mandating minimum square footages, many associations are helping pump up the already-bloated American home.

A 2005 articlein the Journal of Industrial Ecology showed that a very well-insulated 3,000-square-foot house consumes more energy than a poorly insulated 1,500-square-footer. And building a 25 percent smaller house saves more trees than are saved by using advanced wood-efficient construction techniques.

The average U.S. house in the 1970s had 1,500 square feet; by 2006, the typical house was heating and air conditioning almost 2,500 square feet, despite having fewer people living in it. The average home today has three times as much living space per person as in the 1950s . Many HOAs want to keep those numbers going up.

Here are some more typical passages from covenants imposed by HOAs in several states, each mandating some kind of stepped-up resource consumption or pollution:

Piedmont community in Pine Mountain, Ga.: "Size and square footage of heated and conditioned space: A minimum 2,750 square feet."

Cobblestone in Wichita, Kan.: "Minimum living area excluding the basement: Single level -- 1,800 square feet. Two level -- 2,000 square feet [with] central heating and air conditioning ... Seeded or sodded grass lawn on entire lot." Also "minimum of two car garage -- concrete driveway" (no cobblestone driveways in Cobblestone!)

Van Zandt Farms in Haslet, Texas: "Sprinklers shall be installed in the front yard of each residence."

Eagle Point Golf Community near Medford, Ore.: "Lawns shall be watered, fertilized and sprayed for weeds and/or insects and diseases as needed to keep them healthy and green. They shall be mowed on a regular basis."

Applewood Park in Tigard, Ore.: "... a mowed lawn that is regularly fertilized and is free of weeds and debris, ... including clover and dandelions." (This is followed by a helpful hint: "There is a product called 'Bayer' that works well for removing clover.")

Covington Estates in Fishers, Ind.: "Each lot shall maintain at least two continuous dusk-to-dawn lights ..."

Franklin Green in Franklin, Tenn.: "Each residence shall include an attached garage for a minimum of two cars and a maximum of three cars."

Bent Tree West in Dallas, Texas: "Any garages, servants' quarters, storage rooms, or carports erected or placed on any portion of said lot must be attached to the main structure ... garages shall provide a space for a minimum of two conventional automobiles." (servants' quarters?)

Penalties for breaking such rules can range from small fines to foreclosure and loss of the home. Anti-HOA activists maintain lengthy lists of cases in which families have been foreclosed upon -- like the Orlando, Fla., woman whose house was put up for sale because she hadn't paid $108 in association dues.

The Peach Creek Homeowners Association guidelines, which say they "exist for the benefit of our community to help maintain property values," are typical, stating that a homeowner who commits a fifth offense and owes $200 or more in fines is subject to "legal action and/or forcible entry and eviction."

In an apparent attempt to provide some reassurance, the document speaks in the voice of Big Brother: "If a homeowner is found in violation of a rule, regulation or guideline and fined, remember this action is taken because the majority of homeowners in Peach Creek consider it to be just and proper."

Some states crack down

State legislatures are starting to rein in HOAs that try to ban environmentally responsible practices. At least 12 states have adopted laws that guarantee the right to erect solar equipment, although most of them permit HOAs to enforce "reasonable" conditions.

Hawaii, for example, passed a law in 2005 that ensures a right to solar energy. The legislation grew out of experiences like that of Matthew Calloni of 'Ewa Beach, who fought a yearlong legal battle with his HOA to put a solar water heater on his townhouse. And a bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March that, if passed, will protect homeowners nationwide from HOA solar bans.

Many HOAs rules forbid panels anywhere but on the rear of the house, flat against the roof. If the rear part of your roof doesn't face south or is in the shade, that's tough. Now before the Arizona legislature is a bill, HB 2593, that would prevent HOAs from requiring solar panels to be positioned inefficiently or in expensive locations.

Florida is one of the more progressive states in curbing HOA abuses, with legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to have solar panels, use clotheslines, and plant non-grass front yards, overruling any neighborhood policies to the contrary. Joanne Oliver of Ponce Inlet, Fla., was a highly successful realtor in Miami for 15 years. I asked her to imagine that she were showing a house in one of the upscale communities where she had handled properties and that the house next door sported solar equipment on the roof, a line full of laundry in the rear, and a front yard covered with tall native plants. Would that affect the price of the neighboring house she's trying to sell?

"Solar panels," she told me, "would not be a negative these days. And a different kind of front yard, yes, I think people might tend to go for that. That could catch on. But clotheslines!" -- here, she couldn't stop laughing -- "I can't remember the last time I saw a clothesline in Miami. That just doesn't happen. Wait, I have seen one clothesline recently -- behind my mother's house in Ohio!"

Local control, bad and good

The simplest way to stay out of trouble with HOA property cops, of course, is to live in a neighborhood that doesn't have private covenants. My city of Salina, Kan., is like many communites in having some restrictive subdivisions but a much larger territory that remains free.

Our house is in the covenant-free zone. We wake up each morning to the crowing of roosters that belong to neighbors across the alley. (The birds aren't quite legal, but nobody complains.) A couple of streets over, other neighbors have painted the entire front of their house as an American flag. Protruding from the south side of our own house is a solar water-heating apparatus that would almost certainly give those meddlesome Scarsdale aesthetes a case of the hives.

In much of America, this live-and-let-live attitude is still the rule. Lisa and Jason Spangler told me they'd never had neighbors complain about their non-lawn in Austin. In fact, said Jason, "Neighbors walking by often stop and compliment our prairie flowers." It was an overzealous HOA bureaucracy, not the community itself, that tried to kill their garden.

University of Arizona associate professor Paul Robbins says that the key point of his book " Lawn People," expected out in June, is to show that the economy and the culture cannot be meaningfully separated and that "it is this blurring that so marks contemporary capitalist urban ecologies."

As he put it to me, his work shows that "distinctions between the meaning of our lives and the values of our properties are often intermingled and difficult to distinguish. There are clear tensions between our many contradictory desires; we want to be good citizens, good consumers, and good environmental stewards -- a triumvirate that may simply be materially unachievable."

Even homeowners who put being a "good consumer" a distant third among those three desires will find that consumption remains the housing industry's No. 1 concern. When real estate values are considered as crucial as they are in the America of 2007, it doesn't matter what real people in real neighborhoods prefer. Players who have a big stake in the game have little tolerance for anything that smacks of green frugality.

Anti-environmental HOA restrictions are part of a larger problem: the growing power of such "private governments" to control people's use of their own property. But if the tide of ecological destruction's going to be turned, then flag-waving, don't-tread-on-me appeals to property rights, while helpful in some cases, will turn out to be a big hindrance in others.

If a neighborhood wants to outlaw four-car garages or ban daily lawn sprinkling during a water shortage, only the most fanatical property-rights crusaders are likely to object. But what if a more farsighted HOA decides to ban all toxic lawn chemicals or silence the shriek of leaf blowers in the fall (or maybe declare its streets off-limits to Hummers!)?

I'd want to live under regulations like those, and you might also, but there are plenty of people who'd fight hard for their right to blow leaves and spray weeds, just as hard as you or I would fight for the right to put a "Let's Get Out of Iraq" sign in the front yard.

A struggle to defend private property is always sure to draw broad support from across the political spectrum; however, resistance by environmentally minded homeowners will have to be mounted collectively and on the merits of the issues themselves, not just as a fight for property rights.

Meanwhile, here are suggestions for those living under the rule of HOAs: Resistance to clothesline bans is being led by Project Laundry List. There is a highly informative guide [PDF] to dealing with restrictions on solar equipment; some information on green landscaping, including how to deal with restrictions; or how about an edible front yard?

Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kan.

 
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