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New California Law Prohibits Homeowner Associations from Penalizing Homeowners Who Do Not Water Their Lawns During Droughts

Sprinkler04.jpgCalifornia is experiencing a severe drought, which has resulted in substantial restrictions on water usage. This has led to a wide range of responses from homeowners looking to conserve water in regard to their landscaping. Some homeowners are replacing their lawns with hardier plants, gravel or sand, and other methods of xeriscaping. Other homeowners are simply allowing their lawns to go brown. A few homeowner associations (HOAs) around the state, however, have continued to enforce rules regarding lawn care and maintenance. HOAs can enforce their own rules, provided that they do not conflict with other laws. A bill recently signed by the governor brings these HOA restrictions into direct conflict with state law, undoubtedly to the relief of homeowners with dead lawns all over the state.

The drought has left millions of people across California and neighboring states without sufficient water. Many rivers and reservoirs reportedly reached their lowest points in recorded history this year. At least one town lost water entirely as its wells ran dry. Governor Brown declared a state of emergency in January 2014. State officials announced a few weeks later that they would not release water from the state’s reservoir system, choosing to focus on conservation instead.

Despite these dire conditions, a few HOAs are reportedly still enforcing rules regarding lawn maintenance. In one case, a homeowner in San Ramon replaced her lawn with native, drought-resistant plants. This earned her a rebate from the public water utility, but her HOA attempted to fine her $50 per month until she restored sod to her front yard. Homeowners in a development in Indio, in the Coachella Valley, reportedly received a notice from their HOA stating that they had to add grass to their lots by a specified deadline, or they could face a hearing before the HOA board of directors and a fine.

California has more than 50,0000 HOAs, with authority over almost five million homes. This constitutes about one-fourth of all the housing units in the state. When a person buys a home that is subject to a HOA, he or she signs an agreement to be bound by the HOA’s covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs), which often include rules relating to lawn maintenance. HOAs have quasi-governmental authority over their members, and CC&Rs are enforceable as long as they are reasonable and do not conflict with local, state, or federal law. Cal. Civ. Code § 1354; Villa De Las Palmas Homeowners Ass’n v. Terifaj, 33 Cal.4th 73 (2004). The principal statute governing HOAs is the Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act (DSCIDA), Cal. Civ. Code § 4000 et seq.

A new law, introduced as Assembly Bill 2104 and signed by the governor on September 18, 2014, challenges these HOAs’ authority over lawns. The bill amends the DSCIDA, specifically § 4735, to invalidate any CC&Rs that prohibit “the use of low water-using plants as a group or as a replacement of existing turf,” or that prevent compliance with regulations or ordinances relating to efficient water use. It also prohibits HOAs from imposing fines on homeowners for measures intended to “reduc[e] or eliminat[e] the watering of vegetation or lawns” during a drought-related emergency, as declared by the governor or a local governing body.

Real estate attorney James G. Schwartz has 38 years of experience representing individuals and businesses in the Bay Area in contract disputes and other legal matters. To schedule a free and confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us today online or at (925) 463-1073.

More Blog Posts:

Homeowner Association Law Update – Recent Court Decision and Changes to Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act, Pleasanton Business & Commercial Law Blog, November 27, 2013

Utilizing Electronic and Digital Signatures in Real Estate and Commercial Transactions, Pleasanton Business & Commercial Law Blog, October 30, 2013

Adoption of the 2013 California Building Standards Code and its Potential Impact on Residential and Commercial Property Owners, Pleasanton Business & Commercial Law Blog, February 13, 2013

Photo credit: Fir0002 [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.