To: NPSOT-NPAT@yahoogroups.com
From: Jason Spangler <jasons@wumple.com>
Date: Thu, 10 Oct 2002 17:56:18 -0600
Subject: [NPSOT-NPAT] Final Update on our garden's "mowing needed" violation notice from Springwoods

There is good news, bad news, then finally good news.  :-)

Background:

In summary, Springwoods MUD cited our native plant garden for violating restrictive covenants on the property and said "Maintenance needed - Mowing".   We've been fighting it since the beginning of August.  For background information up to this point, see our web page at http://jasons.wumple.com/Interests/Nature/WeedLaws/Welcome.html.

Summary:

The board's landscape consultant, Richard Fadal of Texascapes, liked the garden and told them it was a valid Xeriscape and native plant garden.  We presented the garden information and pictures to the board.  They complained about and criticized our garden for a while, and we reminded them repeatedly that the restrictive covenants only require that vegetation on the property be cultivated, pruned, and free of trash and unsightly material and that our property met those requirements.  At the end the board ruled that the property was not in violation of the restrictive covenants.

The Good News:

Richard Fadal of Texascapes visited our garden before the board meeting at Greg Krumme's (the board's attorney) request.  We walked through the garden. He said it was definately a valid Xeriscape, water-converving, native plant garden.  He was actually quite complimentary and said that the garden was very nice, he really liked it, and he couldn't have done better himself.  He said it looked like the Wildflower Center and had good flow.  He said he would tell the board it was a well-maintained garden, a valid landscape, and a water-wise Xeriscape landscape.

The Bad News:

We then waiting while they had a public hearing where they talked about the deal they are making with the City of Austin to delay annexation for 5 years.

When our turn came to speak at the board meeting, Lisa passed out copies of the information we send the MUD and some pictures of the garden as I spoke.  I summarized the letter we sent to the board (not in violation of the covenant, it is a Xeriscape, water-conserving, habitat, native plant garden, beneficial, no weeds, evaluated by professionals and botanists who sent letters, no complaints, compliments from neighbors, want to know if they think we are in violation (and why) or not).

Then it got really nasty (from Lisa's and my point of view at least).

To Lisa and I, most of the board's tone toward our garden felt hostile during the below exchange.  The text below does not convey very well the extremely negative tone I felt the board's discussion had.

The board was fairly lax on procedure and did not have any name placards or introductions, so we are not sure who is who.  I am unsure that I have the following name associations correct, but I will verify and correct when I receive a copy of the board meeting minutes.

The Springwoods MUD Board: Also present:
B3 said that the garden was not attractive because it did not have different textures and that the height was too uniform.  She said she had an art degree and that the garden was 'not aesthetically pleasing'.  She said we should go on the Xeriscape garden tour for ideas on how to make it look better.  She also complained that our tall sage was too tall.  We did not respond, but wondered what she was talking about (she might have been referring to the liatris or black dalea).

Many board members kept referring to every plant as a "weed".  I corrected them as much as possible: "that is zexmenia, not a weed," "that is liatris, not a weed," "that is black dalea, not a weed".    A board member said that (paraphrasing) 'Johnson Grass occurs everywhere in Texas, it is as native as anything else'.  I responsed that Johnson Grass is a legally defined noxious weed, is not a native plant, and is invasive.  Eventually B1 told them to refer to the plants in the garden as 'native plants' and not 'weeds'.

Throughout the discussion, I repeated that the restrictive covenant requires that vegetation on the property be cultivated, pruned, and free of trash and unsightly material and that our property met those requirements.  We kept trying to steer the discussion away from personal opinions and towards the restrictive covenant.

B1 said he had heard complaints from people in the MUD.  I responded that Robin Sussman, the Restrictive Covenants Assistant for the MUD at ECO Resources, said there were no complaints on file for our property and that the MUD had received no complains.  I also told the board that we've only received compliments from our neighbors and no complaints.

B4 said he was a professional landscaper in the past and that we had lots of Dallasgrass growing in the garden.  I told him we knew what Dallasgrass was and that we had none (we always weeded it).  I also said that a botanist had inspected the property and found no noxious weeds, and that Dallasgrass did not appear on the plant list for the property.  He said it was there and that he was not going to argue with us.  Later I thought that perhaps he believed the blue grama, little bluestem, or liatris seedlings were Dallasgrass.

B5 said that the garden did not conform or fit in with the neighborhood.  He asked if any of our neighbors had significant gardens.  I said yes, several properties in the neighorhood had significant amounts of non-lawn landscaping in the front half of their property.

B5 said that our garden was not appropriate for the front of the property, and that didn't we think it looked different from everyone else's property and didn't conform.  Lisa responded that we thought everyone should have a garden instead of a lawn.

B5 also said the NWF Habitat and TP&W Habitat signs said "backyard", and (paraphrasing) `didn't that give you a clue it shouldn't be in the front yard?' I responded that the convenant does not have a height restriction or a requirement for a lawn in the front of the property.  I also said a front lawn would require much more water, fertilizer, and pesticide than our garden.  I also reminded them several times that the only requirements of the restrictive covenant were that plants on the property must be cultivated, pruned, and free of trash and unsightly material and that our garden met all of these criterea.

B5 said it wasn't any of their business but asked what the backyard looked like.  It told him it had more grasses in it.  However, I didn't mention that it was little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, big bluestem, silver bluestem, plains lovegrass, sideoats grama, buffalograss, big muhly, bushy bluestem, and eastern gamagrass.

B5 also said that our signs were not allowed and asked B1 if the matter should be referred to the architectural committee instead.  B1 said no, it was a full board matter.  We were asked how long this situation had taken, and we responded over two months (since the beginning of August).  Several board members commented that we've been waiting too long for a decision and that they should decide now.

One of the board members asked how much we paid the people to send the letters for us.  We were surprised by this and told them we paid nothing.  Several board members seemed doubtful and asked why someone would inspect the garden or write letters for us without being paid.  We said they believed it was an important issue and wanted to help.

A board member asked the board would they tell who had a patch of "weeds" from a person with a garden of native plants.  The board member said asked who would pay or be responsible for telling a weed patch from native plants.  We did not get a chance to respond because the discussion moved on quickly.

B4 said it looked like a few plants were growing over the sidewalk, and that he was worried about people running into them.  B2 said that loosing a few inches of sidewalk can make it so that a person walking and another person riding their bike or walking their dog can't pass each other, and they worried about safety when people walked in the street instead.  We said we would make sure plants did not grow over onto the sidewalk and would prune any plants that tried to grow onto the sidewalk.

We thought to ourselves that they should do something about the vehicles that blocked the sidewalks throughout the neighborhood or the sidewalks blocked almost completely by non-native plants, rather than complain about our 1 inch of black dalea on the sidewalk.

B4 said we should keep the dead plant grow pruned in winter, and that it would encourage growth and keep the plants healthy.  I said I believed we always kept the plants pruned in winter in the past, and that would we continue doing so.  He admitted he had not seen our garden in winter so he didn't know if we did or not.

I also brought up that no one at the MUD seemed to know the procedure for restrictive covenant enforcement, and that communication with the property owner was poor.  Greg Krumme outlined what he believed the procedure was, and it was different from the procedure Robin had told us.  Several board members agreed and they talked about improving the procedure.

The Other Good News:

Towards the end, I said we wanted to know if we were either not in violation, or if we were in violation and specifically why so we could proceed to the next step.  I sat down, and I heard B1 say he thought we were not in violation.

The board meeting seems pretty lax on procedure, so Lisa and I could not tell that they actually decided anything.  Due to the board's reaction, we thought we would be calling a lawyer the next day to oppose the violation notice.

During the meeting break, Richard came over to our seats and said congratulations.  We were confused and told him we could not tell if they decided anything or not.  He said they said we were not in violation.  He also said that when something is controversial or leading-edge that there would be a group of people who do not like it.

Greg Krumme also walked over and told us we were not in violation, that the meeting minutes would reflect it, and that he would send us a copy of the meeting minutes as a record of the decision.

B2 also came over to us and said that it was okay and they said we were not in violation.  He asked us to keep the habitat signs up so they could use them to explain the garden to anyone who complained about it.

The End:

So the situation appears to be over, at least for now.  The board meeting did not feel like a victory at the time, but we were told that we are not in violation of the restrictive covenant and that is the most important thing. We are still worried that something similar will happen in the future, but there doesn't seem to be anything we can do to avoid it or prepare for it.

The board's comments reminded us how much personal taste and the desire for conformity are involved in communities.  We've received feedback about the garden ranging from "the garden is beautiful" and 'we visit every morning' to 'it looks like a weed patch' and 'is not appropriate and does not fit in'.  In our opinion, such a wide range in taste and opinion is a good reason not to dictate taste or aesthetics in residential landscaping laws and rules.