Saturday, June 22, 2013

The drought-resistant landscaping bill: What it means for us

Did I mention that I think the commercial news media sucks?!  Texas legislative bill SB 198 potentially affects about 8 million single family homes in this state (estimated using 2010 Census data) and yet, as of this morning, I can't find a single commercial news reference to the fact that it was finally signed into law last Friday. 
Excerpt from the 83(R) tracking site.  For crying out loud, I now get much of my news from Facebook, of all places.  In this case, it was the Harris County Master Gardeners who announced the bill passage by linking to this special interests site
This is the bill that clears the way for Texas homeowners to install drought-resistant landscaping irrespective of whatever is written in their Homeowner Association documents or municipal ordinances, including restrictive covenants / deed restrictions.  It doesn't require any homeowner to take such steps, but it allows them. 

What might it mean for those of us in Centerpointe? 

Well, it means a number of things, and I'm speaking here as a resident who is personally interpreting what I'm reading.  I am not speaking as a representative of the POA with which I am not affiliated, and neither am I speaking in the capacity of a legal advisor or attorney. 

First of all,  this new law does not mean you can simply let your existing St. Augustine lawn go to hell in a hand basket.  It does not relieve you of your duty to keep your subdivision property in an appropriately-maintained condition - it just curtails the restrictions that the POA can legally impose upon your choice of landscaping styles. You'll still have to have landscaping plans approved by the architectural control committee, but you'll have significantly more choice in what your front yard looks like.   
Grass be gone:  an example of full xeriscaping, where all turf grass has been removed and replaced with drought-tolerant plants plus mulch and rock to prevent soil erosion. 

Screengrabbed from the website of the Colorado business known as Blooming Idiot Lawn Care (love the name!). 

Partial xeriscaping where a drought-tolerant area has been incorporated into turf grass.

Screengrabbed from Keep Abilene Beautiful
Second of all, the new law will probably require a re-write or at least careful interpretation of certain sections of our deed restrictions. 
I'm not an attorney, but the new law appears to mean bye-bye to the "completely sodded with St. Augustine grass" part.  This is fairly standard boilerplate language which appears to have been adopted by the POA rather than originating with them or with our developer.  I've seen the same type of language in the deed restriction documents of other subdivisions. 

Screengrabbed from our deed restrictions as they are presently uploaded to the community website. 
Our architectural control committee will have to remain creative and well-versed on the issue of xeriscaping (as a subdivision resident who knows about landscaping and gardening, it is not difficult for me to foresee questions landing in my inbox). 

Here's one of the biggest challenges I see for Centerpointe residents who would aspire to reduce their front yard turf grass:

The problem is what to do with this danged tree requirement, which is also boilerplate.  This thing was already threatening to become a thorn in the side of the POA because many Centerpointe front yards are simply not large enough to accommodate two mature trees.  Some of them, especially the pie-shaped cul-de-sac lots, can't even accommodate one mature tree.  A small ornamental tree, yes, but each and every one of us got sprigged with live oak saplings by our builders, and live oaks grow to be massive. 

Screengrabbed from our deed restrictions.
As well as being a space issue, front-yard trees can be problematic for xeriscaping because most low-water species are adapted to grow in full sunlight.  Low-water landscapes tend to be treeless by definition... think Big Bend
I meant the ranch, not the national park.  Here is a photo of nature's most fabulous xeriscape, screengrabbed from the TPWD park website. 
Therefore, if you attempt to develop a low-water landscaping plan while maintaining your builder-installed live oaks, you could end up with a hot mess in your front yard if you're not careful.  That's the kind of mis-step that no decent professional landscaper would make, of course, but many homeowners are DIYers who don't hire expensive outside services. 
From the angle of the photo, it's difficult for me to tell whether this intrepid soul left his trees in place as he was building his personal cactus empire. 

Screengrabbed from The Dallas Morning News
In the face of the new law, enforcement of the tree requirement seems a bit questionable to me.  But personally, I think most tract homes don't look complete without trees in the front yard because they become too stark and barren.  Xeriscaping can be achieved with trees still in place, if done properly.  I'm planning to address the potentially-excessive shade issue by eventually pruning our front-yard live oaks in the style frequently seen in Austin. 
In a previous post, I mentioned moving to Austin for a few years a long time ago.  After I bought my house, my new neighbors asked me (paraphrased), "Are you planning to trim your trees?  Because people who move here from Houston never trim their trees, and we don't understand this."

In this screengrab from an active Austin Home Search listing, you can see what is often meant in Austin by "trimming trees".  The "skirt" is raised to an extent that only a small amount of canopy remains and it barely casts a shadow.  This magnitude of trimming allows unobstructed views of the house and it creates better conditions for healthy plant growth underneath the trees. 

Another example, but with no xeriscaping or bed installation surrounding the trees.  The canopy has been thinned out to such a degree that it doesn't impede full-sun growth of the lawn.  Rather than serving as dense shade umbrellas, these trees are trained to be more like sculptural elements in the landscaping. 

And another example showing partial xeriscaping around the base of the trees, while an area of turf grass lawn is retained in front of it. 

All screengrabs from
Anyway, I'm sure there'll be additional guidance developed by the various property management companies and consortia.  I'll link to those as they become available here in our brave new suburban landscaping world. 

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