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Charlotte Area

Going Green Not Always Easy In HOAs

After 2007 drought, homeowner Connie Harris decided to plant her yard in hardy native and other plants that require less water

Air conditioners in the Charlotte region have gotten quite a workout this summer. As temperatures soared, so did our energy use. But what if you wanted to cut back? Maybe run the clothes dryer a little less. . . or even put up a solar panel to generate some of your own electricity? Maybe in your effort to go green you want to revamp your yard so it didn't require as much mowing or watering? If you live in a homeowners' association, then you may face an uphill battle to make those changes. Just ask Connie Harris. She's an exception in her south Charlotte neighborhood of Candlewyck. Most of the yards have green grass. Harris' does not. "I've got Lamb's Ear over here," she points out. "These are some peonies. They're beautiful in the spring. I've got Creeping Jennies, more of the Mondo grass, azaleas. . . " View more pictures of Connie Harris' yard here. Harris' yard wasn't always like this. The drought of 2007 led her - with the blessing of her homeowners' association - to replace her grass with hardy, native plants and a layer of wood chips. She wanted to save water and reduce her carbon footprint by not having to mow. But some neighbors complained and it ignited a fight that's lasted three years. "When I kind of stepped outside the box, it was just not expected, it was not wanted by many neighbors and there were complaints," Harris says. David Merryman is the Catawba Riverkeeper. It's his job to protect the river system so he laments the fight Harris has endured. "We shouldn't have an uphill battle towards doing the right thing and being energy and water efficient smart," Merryman says. He wants to see more yards like Harris' since they don't require as much water or chemicals that can end up in the river. He also resents homeowners' associations rules that ban clotheslines. "It's pathetic that we depend on a man made appliance, the dryer, when the sun can do the job for free," says Merryman. "I don't think you should force me to pay money to dry my clothes when nature, God, gave me something that can do it a lot more efficiently." But community rules aren't made with green issues in mind. Instead, developers who build neighborhoods create covenants that aim to keep home values high. When a neighborhood is finished, those rules transfer to a citizen board. Frank Rathbun is a spokesman for the Community Association Institute, an HOA advocacy group. "Without rules, your neighbor can put his car up on cinder blocks in his driveway for six months at time," Rathbun says. "Without a community association rule, your neighbor on the other side can just say 'I'm not gonna cut my grass this summer'. Your neighbor across the street can paint his shutters red and his door pink." Rathbun's group estimates that one in five Americans, or 60 million people, live in homeowner's associations. According a similar Raleigh-based group, HOA-USA.com, the Charlotte area has more than 6,500 HOAs. The Triangle has a similar number. The group estimates North Carolina ranks 5th in the country with 18,000 associations. Wake County State Representative Chris Heagarty sits on a committee in the state House that oversees HOA matters. He says he's heard from hundreds of green-minded people all across North Carolina who've waged battles with their associations. "I think a lot of these rules may be antiquated," Heagarty says. "Because the issues that people had when these original covenants were drawn up are very different than the issues people have today." Homeowners' association groups point out that bylaws outline exactly how residents can change their neighborhood's rules if they want. But that can be easier said than done. John Pizetoski is president of Jorel Management, a Davidson company that oversees about 50 HOAs in the Charlotte area. "According to the North Carolina Planned Community Act, you need at least 67% of all homeowners to vote to change a document," he says. "And then some governing documents are even more stringent than that." That's not to say rules aren't ever changed. "Some associations have done it," Pizetoski points out. "If you had 100 associations, you might have two that have done it in a 10-year time period." Many HOAs used to ban solar panels. But three years ago, the North Carolina legislature made it so homeowners' associations could only control where solar panels are placed. Florida also passed a similar law. And last year, lawmakers there unanimously passed a law that overrides HOA rules that mandate grass yards. Senator Carey Baker wrote that legislation. "People do have property rights," Baker argues. "And you shouldn't have to go to your homeowners' association and beg them, and plead with them, to allow you plant the grass or plant a tree or bush that you think is best suited for your yard." But association groups point to evidence that suggests most homeowners don't necessarily want big changes. The Community Association Institute surveyed homeowners on the issue of clotheslines three years ago. Seventy-five-percent said they did not want to see the government step in and allow them in their neighborhood. And for all the talk of going green, Gallup research shows only 2 percent more Americans are trying to cut their household energy use, than were a decade ago. But for those who are passionate about reducing their carbon footprint, Pizetoski, the professional HOA manager, says there are things a person can do inside their house. He mentions better insulation as well as more efficient hot water heaters and windows. And as he points out, all of those things can be done without having to go through a homeowner's association.