HOAs could face fines under California drought rules February 05 2016

Any homeowner associations that try to enforce rules requiring green lawns despite the drought could be fined under regulations approved this week by the state water board.

The latest drought regulations adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board enable local water districts to fine associations that seek to prevent homeowners from reducing outdoor watering or letting their grass go brown in response to the drought.

Under state laws passed since 2014, homeowner associations are already barred from interfering with residents’ water conservation efforts or trying to keep them from switching to drought-tolerant plants or artificial turf. But until the latest measures were approved, a homeowner’s only recourse if an association tried to crack down illegally was to take it to court.

The new regulations approved Tuesday give water districts the power to fine HOAs that break the law up to $500 a day.

“It was important in this latest iteration of the emergency regulations that we make it clear that the urban water suppliers can use this in their enforcement efforts,” said George Kostyrko, a spokesperson for the state water board in Sacramento. “While the state board has a definite role here, the enforcement will be more effective at the local level.”

He said the regulations give water agencies a tool to use “if they’re getting complaints from residents who are being intimidated or fined for conserving water.”

Controversies have erupted in some communities when associations have told residents they must follow landscaping guidelines and keep their grass.

The rules could have an effect on how drought-related disputes play out in some of the homeowner associations in the Coachella Valley.

Cal Lockett, executive director of the Coachella Valley chapter of Community Associations Institute, said the nonprofit has encouraged associations to contact their local water district to make sure they’re complying with drought measures. There are more than 500 community associations in the valley, out of an estimated 43,000 associations in California – including condominium associations, homeowner associations and cooperatives.

Darren Bevan, chair of the institute's California Legislative Action Committee, said many communities have achieve tremendous water-savings, including by converting to drought-tolerant landscaping or artificial grass.

“This fine structure is brand new,” Bevan said in an emailed statement. “We are currently withholding judgement pending more information, but stand with the rest of California in being pleased to see that recent storms have brought much needed water to California.”

During the drought, some water districts have fined HOAs for failing to reduce water usage sufficiently as required under the state’s rules. Disputes have also flared between some HOA boards and groups of homeowners over how to respond to mandatory water conservation rules.

James McCormick, a lawyer who represents HOAs in Southern California, said he recently was involved in a mediation process involving a Coachella Valley association board and a group of homeowners who disagreed on the pace of scaling back on water usage.

“The difficulty that we’re facing is, associations are trying to meet those standards and meeting those standards is going to require oftentimes whole-scale revisions to the landscaping scheme,” McCormick said. “That costs money and that’s the biggest question: how do we accomplish this as quickly as possible with the funds that we have available, or the funds that we can generate?”

As for the possibility of water agencies slapping fines on associations, McCormick said he thinks enforcement will be difficult because the law still allows HOAs to set reasonable restrictions to maintain aesthetics, and it’s unclear how officials will determine which restrictions are permissible and which aren’t.

He said he thinks issuing fines doesn’t seem to be a productive way of moving toward the goal of reducing water usage.

Katie Ruark, conservation manager for the Coachella Valley Water District, said the agency will need to evaluate the measure adopted by the state board.

The new regulations, which take the place of previous drought rules that expire this month, will also slightly ease the mandatory conservation targets for many of the state’s water districts. Water districts in the Coachella Valley will have their reduction goals somewhat reduced starting in March to account for the desert’s hot climate.