ORLANDO, Fla. – April 30, 2015 – In a lawsuit advancing more slowly than grass grows, a new judge is pushing for a trial this summer over a neighborhood association’s complaint that landscaping meant by a resident to be environmentally friendly is not aesthetically appropriate.
Jeffrey and Renee Parker were sued in 2012 by Summerport Residential Property Owners’ Association Inc. after they planted a type of grass they chose because it needs less watering and fertilizing. But it was not specifically permitted by association rules.
The case is seen as a test of the “Florida friendly” law enacted in 2009 to promote yards that conserve the state’s environment. The law says associations can’t prohibit Florida-friendly landscaping but it doesn’t spell out who determines which types of plants qualify.
The Parkers’ lawyer, Barbara Billiot Stage, said during a hearing last week that nearly three years of litigation had accomplished little. Afterward, she blamed Summerport for using its greater financial strength to drag out pretrial proceedings.
“We have invested a lot with nothing being done,” said Stage, who specializes in legal matters of homeowner associations. She is not charging the Parkers, who are covering fees and expenses and are vulnerable to paying association legal fees if they lose the case.
Summerport’s lawyer, the second to handle the lawsuit for the association, said he does not know why the case is in its third year.
“I want to get it to trial,” Robert Taylor said to Judge Tina Caraballo.
Lawyers scheduled the trial for July 8 after Caraballo asked for a date within 90 days.
The Summerport community is near Windermere in west Orange County. Many of its homes were built in the 2000s and generally feature lawns of St. Augustine grass, which has come under fire as contributing to water pollution and shortages.
The Parkers planted Argentine Bahia grass, expecting to lessen the amount of irrigation and fertilizer they had been applying to previous lawns consisting of St. Augustine grass.
Summerport requires residents to have St. Augustine or zoysia grass in their lawns.
A complicating issue is the Parkers’ claim – which association lawyers have denied – that they tried to get association approval but were ignored.
Much more compelling to environmentalists, state officials and professionals involved with homeowner associations is the potential to learn whether the Florida-friendly law can trump association rules.
Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, a West Palm Beach lawyer commented that “a new lawsuit filed by a neighborhood association in Orange County, Florida, against a homeowner should add some clarity as to how the courts will apply this controversial law.”
“Our other South Florida community association attorneys and I will continue to keep a close eye on the outcome of this case,” Laura Manning-Hudson said in her blog post.
Stage said her client’s choice of Bahia grass and other plants squarely meets the goal lawmakers had in mind when they passed the Florida-friendly law.
“It is the right plant in the right place,” Stage said.
Summerport’s lawyer said the law does not give final say to homeowners.
“It all goes back to the question of who makes the final decision from an aesthetic standpoint, factoring in the right plant in the right place,” Taylor said. “St. Augustine grass and zoysia grass are both Florida-friendly grasses.”
Copyright © 2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.), Kevin Spear. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.