Some homeowners' associations leery of grassless xeric landscaping

By Anna Webb

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Thursday, May 13 2010 1:29 p.m. MDT

Instead of repairing a declining lawn, Patty Sankey, of Nampa, Idaho, had her landscape xeriscaped to save on water and maintenance.

Joe Jaszewski, MCT

BOISE, Idaho (MCT) — When Patricia Sankey bought her house, a vacant bank repossession in Nampa, Idaho's Sherwood subdivision, there wasn't much left of the yard, she said, besides a "crunchy" mat of weeds and a long-dead tree listing at a 50-degree angle.

"I'm a single woman. I'm getting older," said Sankey, who works the evening shift as a pharmacy tech at St. Luke's in Meridian, Idaho.

"If there had been a lawn in place, I would have kept it. But there wasn't. I had to do something, so I thought, why not make it count, and do something good for the environment?"

Her decision to rehab her long-derelict yard in a xeric style with river rock, bushes and container plants to save water and cut down on maintenance didn't sit well with the Sherwood Homeowners Association.

Terry Adams, a Sherwood spokeswoman, said Sankey didn't get proper approval for her landscape before installing it. This violated subdivision rules (CC&Rs, or "covenants, conditions and restrictions") that require homeowners to go through a landscape approval process — and to plant grass.

The association board wants Sankey to remove her river rock and install sod. While the CC&R requires grass, it does not specify how much.

"In my opinion, you could plant a foot square. But that would be provoking, and I don't want to do that," Sankey said.

The board recently rejected her proposal to install 100 square feet of grass as a compromise. The two sides, for now, are at an impasse.

Conflicts like that between Sankey and Sherwood could become more common as homeowners' thoughts shift about how they use water.

Boise and its environs are an arid region that gets 12 inches of rainfall each year. Maintaining a 2,000-square-foot lawn in a 95-degree summer, for example, requires 200-300 gallons of water each day, said John Tracy, director of the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute at the University of Idaho in Boise.

Before coming to Boise, Tracy lived in northern Nevada. Homeowners associations commonly required residents to install sod, Tracy said.

Then, water shortages became so severe local governments overrode homeowners associations to end the grass requirements.

Mark Snider, spokesman for United Water, which supplies water to Boise, said that there is "plenty of water here for the foreseeable future, but it's still a question of using it more wisely." Sankey may be in the vanguard — homeowners turning towards water birch, globe mallow and yarrow, and away from Kentucky bluegrass.

United Water advocates xeric landscaping — and was one of the organizations behind the installation of a xeric display garden in what's arguably the most high-profile site in town: the grounds of the Idaho State Capitol.

Some homeowners association staff say change is slow to come.

"A lot of people still like grass. They haven't adjusted to the fact that there are water challenges," said Joe Turmes, owner of the Snake River Homeowners Association which oversees 45 subdivisions, including Falcon Ridge, Saguaro Canyon and others.

Despite its name reminiscent of the desert, Saguaro Canyon residents are required to have grass lawns.

Every subdivision has its own set of CC&Rs written by developers and filed as legal documents, Turmes said. CC&Rs dictate the actions of individual homeowner boards.

Turmes has not seen a great increase in the number of residents in his subdivisions who want to plant water-wise landscapes, but said homeowners associations are starting to look more favorably on installing rockscapes in common areas to save on water, as well as other resources.

Patricia Sankey is asking for a case-by-case judgment to apply to her. She admits she didn't go through the proper channels to get her untraditional landscape approved. The property was in such poor condition when she bought it, she assumed the homeowners association wasn't enforcing its covenants.

Terry Adams agreed foreclosures can become eyesores.

"I'll be the first to tell you. The banks let the repos go to ruin," she said. An additional small number of Sherwood homes have also recently gone into foreclosure, with lawns that will have to face the summer heat.

She has no quarrel with the appearance of Sankey's yard and has even planted water-wise grass in her own yard in the Sherwood subdivision. But the board, whose members are all volunteers, has no choice but to follow the CC&R, partly to be fair to other residents, she said.

Two residents asked the board to approve xeric landscaping before Sankey, but the board denied them.

Sankey believes her landscape, which she paid to have installed by a professional firm, is a vast improvement over what was there before.

She also pays dues that help maintain common green spaces in the subdivision, and offered to pay the costs to put Sherwood's current CC&R up for a vote among her neighbors. A two-thirds majority could change the landscaping rules.

The board has declined Sankey's offer. It's not practical to try and get 289 of 434 homeowners to vote for a CC&R change, Adams said.

Sankey doesn't know what will happen next.

"The board members are volunteers. They're doing their best. If it weren't for them, someone would put a toilet in their front yard and plant geraniums in it. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Sankey said. "But this isn't a question of beauty. It's about water."

WHAT IS XERISCAPING?

Xeriscaping refers to landscaping designed to use a minimal amount of water.

How much water?

Xeric plants need water while they establish their root systems. After that, some of them will need little or no supplemental water. Too much water can kill xeric plants or allow them to become invasive.

Less lawn or lawn-less?

Xeric landscapes can include grass, usually in small, easily maintained areas. Some landscapes use ornamental grasses that require no mowing.

More than plants

Rock, timber, stone, gravel and similar materials are used to add visual interest to a xeric landscape. — Joi Deter

(c) 2010, The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho).

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