San Antonio Water System (SAWS) has long offered incentives to homeowners to replace non-native grass lawns with drought-resistant native plants. But the city’s many homeowner associations (HOAs) continue to favor water-thirsty, non-native turf grasses and resist residents who want native plant landscaping.

Reducing lawn watering during the hot summer months and eliminating automatic irrigation systems is considered a major step toward enhancing water conservation efforts. Yet some HOAs tell homeowners they cannot install drought-tolerant landscaping featuring native plants, even though a 2013 state law permits residents in HOAs to employ xeriscaping.

Homeowner Don Kirchoff said he received a letter from the Forest at Stone Oak homeowners association in 2019 asking him to mow the “weeds” in his front yard. It cited him and his wife, Joyce Peterson, with a breach of the HOA’s declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions, the legal guidelines that govern most communities with HOAs.

The couple was accused of violating a regulation stating that “grass, weeds, and vegetation on each Lot shall be kept mowed at regular intervals.”

Kirchoff’s yard indeed was home to 6-inch-tall greenery: an expanse of bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas.

Kirchoff, the founder and immediate past president of the San Antonio chapter of the Native Prairies Association of Texas, requested educational materials from the San Antonio River Authority he could share with his HOA’s leadership and First Service Residential, the property manager.

SAWS, the city-owned water utility, has invested heavily in enlightening the community about the benefits of drought-tolerant native plants over grass lawns. In San Antonio’s hottest summer months, homes with automated sprinkler systems use 70 percent more water to keep their lawns green than homes with no sprinkler systems and more drought-tolerant plants.

In his letter, Kirchoff mentioned that he had applied for SAWS WaterSaver coupons, a popular program that pays cash rebates to residents who replace turf grass with drought-tolerant plants. SAWS has issued almost 6,000 rebates for the program since 2017.

After neighbors stopped by his bluebonnet patch with their children to pose for photos and request seeds, the HOA finally backed off, said Kirchoff. So far this year, the couple has received no citations from the HOA.

“I think we educated them a bit,” said Kirchoff.

Bluebonnets in Don Kirchoff’s yard last spring were termed “weeds” by his neighborhood’s homeowners association. Credit: Courtesy / Don Kirchoff

Stories of native plant-minded homeowners targeted by HOA officials who want uniformly mowed lawns are not uncommon.

Homeowner Jean Hackett, a master naturalist, hired the Nectar Bar, a local landscaping firm that specializes in native plant installations, to develop a landscaping plan for her Northside home in the Estates of Alon. They began landscaping chores.

Hackett acknowledges she was unaware of the HOA requirement to submit a plan for approval by the HOA before beginning work on her yard. As a result, the first of three notices from her HOA’s manager, Diamond Association Management, appeared in her mailbox in January. It asked her to cease all landscaping until a plan was approved.

She said she submitted her plan, and the HOA responded with another letter stating that native plants and ground cover that were not contained in a “defined bed” could not be approved since it was “not in harmony with the surrounding areas.”

The Nectar Bar and Hackett revised the plan to include a 6-inch brick border for the natives. Before it was finally approved, the HOA sent a third letter to Hackett in February, urging her to “please treat and remove weeds from your yard within the next 10 days.” Again, the “weeds” in question were the state flower of Texas.

The HOA finally approved Hackett’s landscaping plan on March 10, but stipulated that Bermuda grass replace the proposed Texas frogfruit, a low-growing ground cover that attracts bees and butterflies.

“It’s frustrating to get one set of suggestions from the City and the parks, and then have the neighborhood association tell you that you need to have native plants separated by borders,” said Hackett.

Anne Lawrence, a resident of Lookout Creek Canyon on San Antonio’s North Side, recently made her second attempt to remove turf grass from her front yard after receiving an unusually high water bill last summer. Her first landscaping plan was rejected by the Lookout Creek Canyon HOA, she said, because of her use of mulch, which captures and retains water, reducing the need to irrigate.

“I am 80 years old this year, handicapped and can’t mow,” Lawrence wrote in a March 9 response to HOA manager Leslie Ciogna. “Nor can I afford a mowing service as I live on Social Security. … I strongly urge you to reconsider your land use policies, given the environmental crisis we are in and the Texas state laws concerning xeriscaping.”

Such HOA-vs.-homeowner landscaping conflicts persist despite the passage of a “xeriscaping law” in 2013. Senate Bill 198 passed unanimously and assures that Texans living under HOAs can install drought-resistant landscaping or water-conserving turf. The HOAs can still require homeowners to submit plans for approval, however.

Homeowners associations’ covenants have traditionally favored uniformity in neighborhood landscapes, which often means a preference for thirsty green lawns.

Community members sit on HOA boards and influence policy, but real estate management companies generally enforce the rules. First Service Residential and Diamond Service Management did not respond to requests for comment.

The Communities Association Institute (CAI), an international membership organization for homeowners and condominium associations, estimates that 25 percent to 27 percent of the U.S. population live in neighborhoods with a community association. More than 365 homeowners associations are registered with the City of San Antonio.

Most published guides to native plant landscaping include tips for overcoming HOA objections to landscapes that increase biodiversity, conserve water, reduce pesticide use, and storm water runoff.

In his most recent book, Nature’s Best Hope, native plant advocate Douglas Tallamy called HOAs one of the biggest stumbling blocks to replacing turf grass with native plants.

Education and patience are key, according to Karen Guz, director of conservation at SAWS.

“We have had some good results working proactively with HOAs,” said Guz. “We get from them that they want reassurance that people will have reasonable landscape design and good maintenance.”

Much of the challenge comes from people having difficulty conceiving what a “maintained” native landscape looks like, she explained. It’s easier to understand a freshly mowed lawn.

“The good news is that it can be done,” said Guz. “Once they get feeling comfortable with the idea of upkeep, they accept alternative landscapes more readily.”

The Tuscan Oaks Homeowners Association is one that has at least partially embraced native plantings, registering for San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Habitat Initiative.

In February, Tuscan Oaks resident Byron Augustin asked his HOA board to allow the creation of a 40-acre private park with walking trail called the Tuscan Oaks Monarch Butterfly Migration Sanctuary. He received permission to move forward with the project. 

A common checkered skipper draws nectar from Texas bluebonnets at the Tuscan Oaks Monarch Butterfly Migration Sanctuary. Credit: Courtesy / Byron Augustin

“It really wasn’t that tough,” said Augustin, a retired professor of geography at Texas State University in San Marcos. He hopes to add 400 Antelope horn milkweed plants, which serve as a host for monarch butterfly eggs, to add to the sanctuary that surrounds the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Augustin still must comply with the HOA’s landscaping requirement in his front yard. The HOA maintains all front yards for residents, mowing regularly and fertilizing twice a year, said Tuscan Oaks board member Tom Kelly.

Homeowners foot the water bill for the automatic sprinklers.

Disclosure: The author was involved in launching the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Habitat Initiative.

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Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...