Does your HOA require grass? A new bill, and trend toward xeric gardens, is coming to Idaho

It’s been an ugly year for Reggie Mace.

That’s how he describes the state of the landscaping at his Garden City homeowners association. But Mace, who is the HOA president of Townhouses at Plantation near the River Club, said he’s looking toward the future when the drought-tolerant grasses and native plants that were planted this year start to thrive.

Mace told the Idaho Statesman in an interview that when he assumed the president position nearly two years ago and looked at the association’s finances, it was clear grass had to go.

“We spent 70 to 80% of our annual assessments on lawn care and water for 20 homes that don’t have big yards in any way,” Mace said, noting the cost was close to $30,000 each year.

Saving money wasn’t his only motivation, he said. He hopes the change attracts pollinators, saves water and more closely aligns with Boise’s high desert environment. Mace’s HOA is just one of a growing number that are shifting to more water-wise, native landscaping — a trend that’s cropping up around the Treasure Valley. Homeowners, landscapers and even one Boise legislator are looking to conserve resources and transform traditional lawns.

HOAs warming up to xeriscaping

Mace formed a landscape committee that decided last winter to move away from traditional grass landscaping. They hired Peggy Faith’s Boise-based Xeric Gardening to lead the project.

Faith told the Statesman she has seen interest in xeriscaping — water-conserving landscaping — grow in the last several years, but HOAs trailed behind.

“I’ve seen trends come and go but I think it would be hard to go down a block and not see someone doing some kind of xeriscape — except in HOAs,” she said.

HOAs have a reputation for being strict when it comes to landscaping, with some allowing only certain approved plants or requiring homeowners to keep grass lawns — with some even going so far as to stipulate what type of grass is acceptable. Faith said she used to see homeowners who were scared to even approach their HOA boards for approval to convert to more drought-tolerant landscape.

In the last year or two, Faith said, that rigidity appears to have softened. This year alone, she has had four HOAs ask for her help in making their landscaping rules more xeriscape-friendly.

Older, more established neighborhoods seem to be more open to drought-tolerant landscaping than new subdivisions, she said. That’s the case in Nate Benson’s southeast Boise neighborhood.

Benson, who ended his tenure as HOA president in June after two years, said he and his neighbors in the Lakewood Park Homeowners Association wanted to find a landscaping option that would require less water and be more resilient to climate change.

Benson said his home and several others in the neighborhood have xeric landscapes already since their HOA didn’t have stringent requirements for lawns. As president of one of the HOAs that make up the larger Lakewood Park Association, he proposed bringing a water-thrifty approach to some of the shared green spaces in the subdivision.

“What got the most attention was when the cost of water started going up this year,” Benson said.

The association agreed to try. Benson said change has been incremental — right now it’s a small trial area of native landscaping on a slope in one park, but he hopes it’s a push in the right direction.

Education, communication are key

KC Shedden is trying to nudge his neighbors in the Warm Springs Mesa subdivision and its handful of HOAs in the same direction. Shedden, who worked as a wildland firefighter for 16 years, said half of his neighborhood contains newer homes, while the other half includes homes that have been in the Boise Foothills for decades.

Shedden said working with both types of homeowners requires communication on different needs. For newer residents, that often means educating them about which popular plants may require a lot of water or fail to thrive in the subdivision. At older homes, the focus is on replacing aging or dead plants that may be invasive species or require a lot of water.

There’s an added bonus, too. The neighborhood is part of the wildland-urban interface, where homes meet undeveloped land. It’s an area that can be particularly at risk of wildfires. Shedden, who is the vice president and firewise coordinator for the Warm Springs Mesa Neighborhood Association, said drought-tolerant, native landscaping “goes hand-in-hand” with what’s known as firewise landscaping, which can make fire less likely to impact a home.

Shedden said that has been a selling point for homeowners, especially following the 2016 Table Rock Fire, which burned 2,500 acres around the popular Boise hiking spot and destroyed a home. Still, he said a big part of his job is educating neighbors about native and drought-hardy plants.

Mace said he’s had similar discussions with his neighbors in Garden City. He said residents aren’t sure what to expect in a xeric landscape. For example, he and Faith replaced traditional grass lawns with sheep fescue, a drought-tolerant grass that grows in bunches. While it’s filling in, it has looked a bit sparse, though cooler fall temperatures will encourage more growth.

“I can’t say that everybody’s been super happy this year, because it’s been an ugly year,” Mace said. “We’ve had to constantly remind people: ‘It will get better.’ ”

The Townhouses at Plantation homeowners association is transitioning much of what was previously grass lawn to drought-tolerant native species.
The Townhouses at Plantation homeowners association is transitioning much of what was previously grass lawn to drought-tolerant native species.

Idaho bill could prevent required lawns

Though more HOAs seem to be interested in a move away from traditional lawns, not all of them are so flexible. That’s what spurred Sen. Rick Just, D-Boise, to work on legislation that could prevent HOAs from requiring grass lawns.

He xeriscaped his own West Boise yard in 2020 after he got tired of mowing and maintaining a lawn. Without an HOA, Just said, it was easy enough to make the decision to change his landscaping. He quickly heard from friends and constituents that they would love to do the same, but their HOA rules stood in the way.

“Lawns, we know, do no one any good — no one in the natural world at least,” Just told the Statesman. “All it does is suck water. It doesn’t provide any habitat for anyone.”

So far, his draft of potential legislation is a single sentence: “No homeowners association may add, amend, or enforce any covenant, condition, or restriction in such a way that requires a grass lawn.”

He said xeriscaping hasn’t had a significant impact on his own water use, but he thinks the more Idaho residents are able to switch to less consumptive landscaping, the bigger the impact will be. Domestic water usage makes up a fraction of all water used across the state, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Agriculture accounts for the vast majority.

“Having a handful of xeriscaped yards probably won’t make a big difference, but it will make a difference,” Just said.

He said he’s also hopeful that a law preventing required lawns could help boost pollinators and encourage people to plant more native and drought-hardy plants, even if they don’t overhaul their yards.

Just said he’s optimistic about introducing it to the Legislature next year and heard support when he floated it to other lawmakers during an Idaho Water Users Association Legislative Water College tour this summer.

Similar legislation has been on the books in California for nearly a decade, and other drought-affected states are following suit. This year, Colorado expanded its law limiting HOA restrictions on water conservation and Utah lawmakers approved a bill with wording similar to Just’s.

The Idaho senator said he doesn’t intend for his bill to “make life particularly difficult for HOAs,” which could still enforce rules about plant types, hardscape options and other aesthetics.