By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Is it easier to fight your City Government or your Homeowners’ Association? The answer may surprise you.
Today I share with my readers two stories about homeowners who care about the environment and sustainable living. Both of these true stories take place in Orange County, Florida, in the Orlando metropolitan area. Both involve homeowners that simply want to live a healthy lifestyle and be kind to the environment. Both the HOA and City Government seek to restrict individual rights.
But the stories have very different outcomes.
Fighting the HOA over grass
Let’s look at Summerport Residential Property Owners Association first. The community is about 18 miles west of center city Orlando, close to Lake Apopka.
In 2012 homeowner Renee Parker, who works for the Orange County Environmental Protection Division, decided to replace her thirsty lawn with a drought tolerant landscape of native shrubs, flowers and Bahia grass. Plants were carefully chosen for their drought tolerance and resistance to pests, so that Parker could avoid using pesticides and cut down dramatically on irrigation.
A 2009 Florida law is supposed to protect a homeowner’s right to replace a conventional lawn with a “Florida friendly landscape.” However, that did not stop Parker’s HOA from issuing substantial fines and ordering her to rip out her sustainable landscape and replace it with the thirsty, green lawn she had just removed.
Confident the law was on her side, Parker stood her ground, and Summerport POA sued. For almost four years, a bitter and ugly court battle consumed the homeowner’s life. Ultimately, Parker settled with the Association in March of 2016. The terms of the settlement are confidential, and Parker’s house is currently for sale – with the conventional green lawn recently replaced.
As is very typical in lawsuits that pit homeowners against their Association Governed residential communities, the odds are stacked in favor of the HOA. Florida Friendly Landscape Statute, as it turns out, is toothless against an HOA’s attorney. Attorneys for the HOA industry argue that CC&Rs and architectural controls are more valid than state law, and that the property rights of the collective Association are somehow more important than either individual homeowner rights or preservation of the public interest – in this case, protection of the Florida Aquifer.
The fundamental flaw in Association Governed Housing is that – as currently structured – your HOA is governed under Corporate Law or Contract Law rather than Constitutional Law.
Or, as I like to say: In your HOA, The Bill of Rights Need Not Apply
Unfortunately for housing consumers, secret out-of-court settlements such as this help the HOA industry to avoid creating new case law that might sway in favor of homeowners.
But no one can blame Parker for wanting to escape the tyranny of her HOA. The stress of prolonged litigation, not to mention animosity generated within the Association, take a toll on even the most strong-willed person. Parker’s pro bono attorney, Barbara Stage of Orlando, says it best: (Source: Orlando Sentinel)
“You are fighting over grass and when it starts to take a toll on your health it gets to be too much,” Stage said. “Associations count on you not having the money to litigate or not being able to stand up to the stress.”
You can read more about Renee Parker’s story and see a photo of her former drought tolerant yard here.
Settled lawsuit over grass leaves few answers
Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel
A legal battle between an Orange County homeowner wanting to eliminate irrigation and fertilizing in her yard and a neighborhood association favoring lush lawns has ended in a secret settlement, disappointing those hoping for an environmentally favorable precedent.
Renee Parker was sued by a homeowner association in 2012 for planting drought-tolerant landscaping in a neighborhood dominated by pampered lawns. Although the case was widely watched for an interpretation of state law, Parker said the court fight left her ill from stress and not able to continue.
Fighting City Hall over a vegetable garden
Now let’s look at a similar dispute over homeowner rights in the City of Orlando.
Jessica and Jason have owned a home in Orlando for several years. Last year, they planted a vegetable garden in their yard. The homeowners believe in sustainable living and wanted to save money and grow their own healthy, organic vegetables. They also shared some of their food with local charities to help feed the hungry.
Their home is not located in a homeowners’ association, but City Council had recently passed an ordinance that limited vegetable gardens to the back yard.
Jessica and Jason’s garden was in the front yard, because that happens to be the sunny side of their property. The City of Orlando threatened to fine the homeowners $500 per day if they did not move their garden to the back yard.
The homeowners stood their ground, refusing to relocate their thriving vegetable garden. They attended a hearing in June 2016, where they argued their case, but to no avail. According to Jason, City government was not that interested in changing their stance on the issue.
But then the homeowners were inspired to start a petition to Orlando City Council, stating that it is a Constitutional right to grow food on one’s private property, wherever the sun shines. The couple gathered signatures at their local polling place on election day, and also went door-to-door, ultimately gathering 10,000 signatures.
That petition was enough to convince City Council to rescind their ordinance against front yard vegetable gardens. Now homeowners in Orlando have preserved their right to live sustainably by growing their own vegetables, even in their front yards.
In this case, the people of Orlando won, and nobody had to move out of their home.
The key reason for a successful outcome is that a government cannot easily argue against your Constitutional rights. But there is another important distinction as well. Grass roots efforts are far easier to implement in the “American Zone” beyond the watchful eye of your HOA.
In an HOA, when a resident becomes embroiled in litigation with the Board, it often pits most of the other homeowners against what the HOA calls a “trouble maker” or a “disgruntled homeowner.” There may be neighbors that happen to agree that the HOA Board is out of line, but few will publicly support the target of the HOA Board, for fear of becoming the next target.
Yet we don’t often see that same type of response when government oversteps it bounds. Instead of fear, we more often see public outrage.
We must ask ourselves, why the difference?
Do Americans fear their HOA more than they fear their government? Do HOAs have too much power over homeowners and residents – even more that their government?
Definitely some food for thought – pun intended.
You can read about Jason and Jessica here, and be sure to check out the video and their Facebook page, too. Very inspirational.
Family fights government of Florida after being threatened for growing vegetables on their own property
City orders couple to destroy their lush fruit and veggie garden
The city, using an “HOA mentality,” argued that the garden was not aesthetically pleasing, despite the fact that it was well maintained, added her husband Jason. The couple was ordered to destroy their fruitful garden or face paying a hefty fine.
However, the couple stood their ground, insisting that there was no possible way they were going to accept the city’s unreasonable orders. “They can take my house before they take my garden,” said Jason.
couple has launched several grassroots initiatives, including a program that helps install gardens for residents with the agreement that they will donate 10 percent of the food to charity.
Thanks to their efforts, it is now legal to grow food anywhere you want on your property within the City of Orlando.
Watch this video of Jason and Jessica, explaining their grass roots movement and their charitable food-growing activities.