New habitat laws have homeowners (and HOAs) buzzing

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The power of the HOA may be over in some areas where personal preference and environmental concerns are ruling the day.

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Imagine living in a neighborhood of well-tended homes where hummingbirds, butterflies, bumblebees and goldfinches lazily dart among the flowers and plants of a neighborhood garden. Sounds idyllic, right?

Not for the neighbor of Columbia, Maryland, residents Janet and Jeff Crouch, who wrote complaint after complaint about the HOA violations that were evident in their yard.

Having lived in the same neighborhood for many years, the Crouches had carefully chosen native plants that would sustain a healthy habitat for insects, birds and wildlife. They had installed their garden with equal care and frequently received compliments on its beauty. 

However, once brought into the matter, the HOA had no choice but to notify the Crouches that they had 10 days to replace their lush garden scape with a conforming lawn.

Laws that are changing the landscape for homeowners

Instead of bowing down to the powers that be (however reluctant) in the HOA, the Crouches contacted their state delegate, who sponsored a bill designed to give homeowners more control over their landscaping choices. 

Passed in 2021, that bill opened the door for another bill last year that prohibits local jurisdictions from imposing restrictions on “utility designated pollinator areas” that are maintained by public service companies.

That means that miles of potential meadow running under power lines which were once mowed and maintained multiple times per year are now free to go back to nature. The result in some areas has been dozens of native plants, insects and birds coming back to life in landscapes that were previously practically barren.

According to The Sierra Club, while the newest Maryland law doesn’t force utility companies to turn their easements and right-of-ways into wildflower meadows, it removes a major barrier to doing so. In a region that has “lost 90 percent of its grasslands” and where 70 percent of endangered and threatened plants grow in grassland habitats, it could be a game-changer for many species.

The passage of the Maryland laws in the last couple of years is already paving the way for other states and municipalities to reconsider existing limits on property use. Colorado, for example, recently passed a bill that would force HOAs to accept water-saving landscaping to decrease outdoor water use. 

Advantages of habitat-friendly native plants

Native plants aren’t just attractive; they’re also hardier in warding off invasive plant species and more beneficial to wildlife. In a time of overdevelopment, suburban sprawl and climate change, the health of native grasslands is more crucial than ever before.

In addition to taking care of native wildlife, residential yards can provide an important source of food for the human inhabitants of the home. Both Illinois and Florida have passed laws guaranteeing gardening rights to residents, while Maine updated its state constitution with a “right to food” amendment that does much the same thing.

In another environmentally friendly measure, nearly half of states have laws guaranteeing the right to solar drying — otherwise known as clotheslines — for homeowners who choose to hang out the wash on laundry day.

How agents can help homeowners who want to implement environmentally friendly practices

HOAs are already a sore spot for many buyers, with some choosing to search specifically for non-HOA communities where they’re more likely to have control over their property.

In a time of low inventory, however, buyers may not want to limit themselves more than they have to. Here’s how you can help your buyer clients, and existing homeowners in your database, better understand their rights when it comes to landscaping, land use and HOAs.

  • Dig into those HOA documents that go along with each sale and keep a spreadsheet of any unusual rules. Familiarize yourself with rules governing local historic districts, which often have even more draconian boards and limitations on personal expression.
  • Know the laws that govern HOAs and landscaping both locally and at the state level, then communicate any changes to your sphere of influence.
  • Talk with your buyers upfront about their goals for the property, not just inside but outside as well. Use their preferences as a guide when choosing listings for them to visit.
  • Connect with landscapers in your area who are interested in native plants, wildflower meadows, sustainable gardening and regenerative gardening. Develop referral partnerships that benefit both of you as well as the environment.
  • Reach out to the local office of the Cooperative Extension Service for information on best practices that are specific to your area and share relevant information in the content you create on your blog, video channel, podcast and social media platforms.

Whether in individual lawns or public thoroughfares, environmentally friendly practices are gaining favor in many markets. As laws and regulations change, agents have a new opportunity to be a resource for their clients and an expert in the neighborhoods they serve.

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