Our Encounter With Bad Weed Laws


Table of Contents

Introduction

We replaced our water-guzzling, environmentally unfriendly exotic lawn (just outside of Austin in Williamson County) with a native plant garden.  We bought plants, rescued plants from construction sites, grew plants from seed and planted them, planted seed directly, and planted plants given to us by friends.

Several years afterward we received a notice from the Springwoods Municipal Utility District (the same local entity advocating water conservation) which enforces restrictive covenants for the Hunter's Chase Property Owners' Association, via the MUD's contractor ECO Resources Inc., claiming we were violating a restrictive covenant of the property regarding maintenance ("mowing needed").   We had worried that something similar would eventually happen, so we were already partially prepared with information and books.  Without hesitation, we decided to fight the notice and keep our garden.

After many phone calls, letters, inspections, and a unpleasant board meeting, we were finally found not in violation of the restrictive covenants.

The following information contains copies or summaries of most actions and communications related to the exchange.  We hope this information will help others dealing with similar situations in the future.

The Violation Notice

We received a letter on 2002-8-7 from Springwoods Municipal Utility District claiming we are in violation of the restrictive covenants upon our property.

Actions and Request for Advice and Help

Since we suspect some confusion occurred, we added several features to the property to make it more obviously a garden.  We added two paths of limestone stepping stones surrounded by decomposed granite sand.  We added a copper birdbath and additional hardscape in the form of limestone rocks.  We added two trellises for vines and an arbor for the honeysuckle.  We added a Mexican pot with dried Twist-leaf Yucca stalks to the porch.  We moved our Texas Parks and Wildlife Wildscape sign and National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat sign forward to make them more visible.  We also added identification labels to individual plants near the sidewalk.

Pictures of the garden before and after these additions can be viewed on our Garden page.

We also requested advice and help on the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT)/Native Prairie Association of Texas (NPAT) mailing list.  The message can also be viewed here.

Advice From Others

We received many responses and lots of advice from our request for help to the NPSOT-NPAT mailing list.  The most common themes of the advice were to communicate with the officials via phone and letter and explain the garden, prepare plant lists to show no noxious weeds exist, made sure the garden meets all applicable rules and laws, and to ask for help from local organizations and groups interested in the matter.

A summary of the advice can be found here.

Early Communication with the MUD

We called ECO Resources Inc., the company that administers Springwoods MUD, as soon as we received the violation notice.  We explained our property was a garden (rather than a lawn), and that there were no weeds and nothing to mow in the garden.  Robin Sussman of ECO Resources Inc., the Restrictive Covenants Assistant, said she had inspected the neighborhood and thought the garden looked "too tall".  She said she would reinspect the property in the near future and contact us.

In the middle of August we sent a packet of information via certified mail to the MUD and ECO Resources Inc.  The package included a letter explaining our garden and why we were not in violation of the covenant, recent additions we made to the garden, and what we would like to see done (receive a letter saying we are not in violation).  The package also included copies of letters of support from organizations and individuals concerning this matter, a list of benefits of our garden, a list of references cited and used when creating the garden, copies of Wildlife Habitat letters and certificates, and an extensive plant list (organized by family, genus, and species).

Over the next few weeks several professionals (involved in landscaping, native plants, and wildlife) and a NPSOT official wrote letters of support to the MUD and ECO Resources Inc.

The complete contents of the package can be found here.

Update 2002/9/29

On 2002/9/29 we posted an update of the situation on the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT)/Native Prairie Association of Texas (NPAT) mailing list.  The message can also be viewed here.

Summary: After we made many phone calls that resulted in no answers, Robin Sussman of ECO Resources Inc. told us that our property passed the second inspection but the situation was now a "larger issue" due to the letters of support for our garden the MUD had received.  She put us in touch with the MUD's attorney, Greg Krumme, who told us the MUD board would take the issue up at the next board meeting.  Greg also said the board asked their landscape consultant, Richard Fadal of Texascapes, to visit our property and give his opinion to the board.  We said we would attend the board meeting and present our case, and that we would like to be present for Richard's visit to answer any questions.

Update 2002/10/10 and Resolution

On 2002/10/10 we posted another update of the situation and the resolution on the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT)/Native Prairie Association of Texas (NPAT) mailing list.  The message can also be viewed here.

Summary: The board's landscape consultant, Richard Fadal of Texascapes, visited our property, complimented us on the garden, and at the MUD board meeting told the directors our landscape was a valid Xeriscape and native plant garden.  At the MUD board meeting, we presented the garden information and pictures to the directors.  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 Article: "Defending Your Landscape Against Bad Weed Laws"

The Native Plant Society of Texas asked Lisa and I to write an article for the statewide newsletter "NPSOT News" summarizing the situation and the advice given to us on the NPSOT-NPAT mailing list.  An HTML copy of the article can be found here.

Update 2002/11/3: Story Request for a Sociology Paper

Susan Burke,  a socialologist and visiting professor at Texas Woman's University, emailed us and asked permission to use our story to write a paper about our situation.  She plans to present her paper, tentatively titled "Unspoken Elements In Lawn Laws: Social Control Of Conformance In Neighborhoods", at the Southwestern Social Science Association's annual meeting during April 2003 in San Antonio.

Update 2003/1/10: Some Closure

On 2003/1/10 (five months after this whole situation began) we finally received a copy of the Springwoods MUD Board October meeting minutes.  The meeting minutes are the only written confirmation we received that our landspace was found not in violation of the restrictive covenants.  The relevant excerpts from the meeting agenda and minutes follow:

[Comments: We received only one violation letter.  It also looks like the secretary thinks the ruling only applies to the front yard and not the whole landscape.]

"6. Receive a report from the District's attorney and discuss and consider taking necessary action related thereto, including (i) violation at 8521 Foxhound Trail and (ii) approving legal action regarding restrictive covenant enforcement;"

"Jason Spangler, a resident of the District addressed the Board regarding the yard maintenance violation letters he had received for his home on Foxhound Trail.  Mr. Spangler noted that he had letters that had been submitted to the district from various officials at, among other things, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center noting that his entire front yard was appropriately landscaped with xeriscaping methods.  The board discussed the landscaping with Mr. Spangler and expressed concern that it lacked any turf areas and did not seem to fit in the general scheme of the neighborhood.  Mr. Fadal stated that he had reviewed the landscaping and noted that it illustrated typical xeriscaping methods.  Director Weems noted that that was probably true but suggested that they are more appropriate for backyard landscaping.  After discussion, the Board made the determination that Mr. Spangler's xeriscaped landscaping in the front yard of the home is not a violation of the restrictive covenants."

Update 2003/4/1: "In Defence of Native Plant Gardens"

Irene Fedun of the North American Native Plant Society adapted our "Defending Your Landscape Against Bad Weed Laws" article for the Sping 2003 issue of the Blazing Star, the newsletter of the North American Native Plant Society.

Update 2003/4/4: Backyard Wildlife Habitat web site reprint

Lori Liddick of the National Wildlife Federation reprinted our "Defending Your Landscape Against Bad Weed Laws" article on the NWF Backyard Wildlife Habitat web site.

Update 2004: Christian Science Monitor, Austin-American Statesman, Yard of the Month

The following occurred in 2004:
  1. The Christian Science Monitor newspaper included our garden and story in an article about native plants, environmentalism, and natural landscaping.
  2. The Williamson County edition of the Austin-American Statesman included our garden and story in an article about native plants, environmentalism, and natural landscaping.
  3. The Hunter's Chase Homeowners Association awarded our garden with Yard of The Month.  (Very ironic!)  An article Lisa wrote about landscaping with native plants was published in the association's newsletter.

Jason M. Spangler,
jasons@wumple.com