HOAs vs. Your Garden

Imagine growing a lush, organic garden full of fruit trees and raised beds featuring edible flowers and vegetables. It’s beautiful. And it’s in your backyard. Your slice of heaven. Your respite. The place where you can get your hands dirty growing wholesome, nourishing foods for you and your family.

One day you stroll out to your mailbox to find a letter from your HOA telling you your garden is in violation of HOA rules. According to your deed restrictions, all fruit trees and edible plants should be grown inside a screened in patio. You face $100/day fines for each day that you refuse to tear up your fruit trees and remove your raised beds.

That’s just what happened to Amy Becerra of Florida. And she’s determined to fight.

From the Miami Herald’s coverage:

In preparing for her case, Becerra recently drove throughout her Weston Hills subdivision trying to tally the fruit trees she spotted growing throughout the community. Her final count came out to 103 homes, growing everything from avocados to lemons. She said she brought it to the attention of the HOA managers, not to rat out other residents but to highlight how the trees are fixtures through out the community. Becerra said was told by the management company that they could not comment on other households.

“Across the country there are so many laws and programs encouraging people to grow their own foods,” Becerra said as she examined a vine of tomatoes growing in her back yard. “I don’t understand why I should be discouraged from planting fruits and vegetables for my family to enjoy. ”

Former North Miami Beach Mayor and Commissioner Frank Wolland, an attorney by profession, volunteered to represent Becerra. Her case struck a chord with Wolland, who as a commissioner found himself the target of complaints for planting a vegetable garden in his front yard. Eventually he was made to remove the vegetable garden, which he replaced with rose bushes.

“The architectural control guidelines want all the houses to look the same,” Wolland said of the HOA guidelines. “Well, from the street you can’t tell that this house is any different from any of the other neighboring houses,” Wolland said. “It looks just as nice. You can’t tell there is a vegetable garden until you start climbing around to see what’s going on back there. That’s the point at which Big Brother has to stand back.”

After the publicity in the Miami Herald, Amy Becerra’s HOA has promised to “review the case.” Amy is not hopeful about the outcome. “They allow non-food producing plants, but if it turns into a food it’s not allowed? This is really awful. In these trying times I would expect a change of attitude. Look at Japan? We never know when life will change for the worse. I just want to have some healthy food for my family,” she said in an email to me earlier this week.

All this over a garden that’s in her backyard? Her backyard? I understand the important role that HOAs play in creating communities. They help prop up property values by maintaining community areas like parks, swimming pools, and tennis courts. They can even help maintain certain standards for how the community chooses to look. Are crazy paint colors allowed? Broken down cars stored in visible driveways? Old refrigerators? What if your neighbors don’t want to live five feet away from a smelly cow or braying horse? An HOA can put forth restrictions which shape what kind of neighborhood or community you live in.

But how does what Amy Becerra does in the privacy of her backyard affect her neighbors’ property values? Does it make her home unsightly? Is it noisy or smelly? Does it in any way, shape, size, or form make her a bad neighbor?

This strikes me as simply another example of authority overstepping its bounds, grabbing for a level of control that is not rightfully theirs. Thankfully, HOAs are as local a form of government as you can get. If I were Amy Becerra, I’d draft a letter to those 103 neighbors who also have visible fruit trees and get them to stand with me to re-write our community’s deed restrictions. I’d try to take over the HOA by — you guessed it! — participating. Go to the monthly meetings, vote according to my conscience, and get other like-minded neighbors to stand with me. When it comes to HOAs, it really is a numbers game.

In the Urban Homesteading movement, HOAs Wars are common. Usually, though, it has to do with people planting gardens in their FRONT yards or keeping chickens. While I’m all for both, I can at least understand the arguments some neighbors would pose against those behaviors. But where is the harm in Amy Becerra’s backyard garden?

Do you have your own HOA story? Are you still operating incognito, flying under the radar? Have you fought your HOA and won? Let’s learn from each other’s experiences.

(photo of Amy Becerra by Walter Michot of the Miami Herald)

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While I adore hats & happy skirts, nothing inspires me quite like geeking out over nutrition & sustainable agriculture.
My name is Kristen Michaelis, author extraordinaire and rebel with a cause.

Comments

  1. says

    That is so absurd. Sometimes I think people like to make rules just for rules’ sake (justifying their own existence?). I don’t have my own HOA story, at least not a real one. But this blog reminded me about something I wrote a while back, about gardens and housing authorities, and more about the idea of lawns and grass. :)

    I really hope I never live in a place where people can tell you what to plant and how your house has to look.

    http://moorethanfine.blogspot.com/2010/04/my-true-feelings-about-lawn-care-late.html

  2. Lisa Crawford via Facebook says

    I have a friend who has been harassed for years by her HOA. She finally decided that if she can’t beat them, join them. She’s now on the HOA board and has gotten them to approve a community garden :) Wise woman, my friend :)

  3. Rachel Roland via Facebook says

    This is just crazy! I’ve got to agree – you’ve got to join up and fight back and get involved!

  4. says

    My HOA rulebook says no edibles may be grown where they can be seen by any neighbor. Of course, chickens are absolutely disallowed! I live in a very hilly neighborhood where I can see 41 houses from my front door and 27 from my back door (and hence they can see my yard.) I grow “hidden” edibles in the front: nasturtiums, ornamental kale, johnny jump ups, and medicinals like echinacea and marigold. I have an herb garden with dill, fennel and rosemary. On my back patio I have a container garden. Hubby’s just given me the okay to dig up the backyard for food production as well, and I am, one four-foot square at a time.

    I’m “under the radar” right now. Our HOA rules are not enforced well, thankfully.

    • KristenM says

      I once lived in a neighborhood with similar HOA restrictions. I opted to subvert the authorities by planting edibles that didn’t look like a veggie patch, including gooseberry bushes to make preserves and jams. I even got some veggies in their like carrots and kale. I figured as long as the neighbors didn’t complain and it looked like everyone else’s sculpted beds featuring ornamentals, no one would be the wiser.

  5. Elizabeth McKinstry via Facebook says

    HOAs are the devil. Never, EVER buy a house with one. They might seem reasonable at first, but all it takes is a takeover by busybodies… read Consumerist for lots of HOA horror stories. They can even take your home for not paying fines in some states.

  6. says

    This is what I worry about at night before I fall asleep. We just built a fence to contain a small garden in our backyard and while I am very, very excited to grow my own food this year, I fear that one day I will open the mailbox to find a letter from the HOA. Our neighbors on that side are amazing and have no problem with us having a garden and we back to open space instead of neighbors, so that should help keep us under the radar, unless someone walking by turns us in. I don’t understand the willy nilly way things are done with the HOA, with some homes being painted crazy colors, others with overgrown yards and still others with cars all over the place. We once received a violation for having the mower parked outside when clearly I was mowing!

  7. Mary Light via Facebook says

    Years ago the hoa where I lived ripped out my herbs without even any notification or discussion. I could not sell and get out of there fast enough. Never again, unless I was on the board – and got exactly what I wanted.

    • Laura says

      If you lived in Texas, you would have the legal authority to defend your home with lethal force. My home is my castle, and I take comfort in Texas’ laws in this area. More than likely I would simply force the guy on the ground prone and call the cops, but it’s comforting to know all options are open if things get crazy.

  8. The Tiny Homestead says

    we don’t have a HOA, and I am thankful for that every time I hang my laundry out, plant my tiny garden or work on a project on the front porch. Our neighborhood is older and honestly a bit run down, but that’s a trade-off that I’m more than willing to make.

  9. says

    I know my brother has had enough problems with his HOA that I would never even consider living under one. Where he is there are too many people with too much time on their hands who take big advantage of a little bit of power. :p I do love the story of the woman who joined hers and changed it from within though! :)

  10. Meg says

    Our HOA has a bylaw that forbids the growing of edibles in the front yard. Our back yard is way too shady to grow anything except moss. Fortunately our town has an ordinance that forbids HOAs from enforcing bylaws that forbid growing food on your property :-) We have two raised beds in our front yard, in plain view of everyone. We have received no negative comments on the beds, but many people stop to ask what we’re growing, how we made them, etc.

    To people who do have HOAs that forbid them from having fruit trees, gardens, edibles, etc. I would encourage you to join the board/association and try to change things or at least come up with a compromise.

  11. says

    Just one more reason NOT to live in an urban, suburban, or subdivision. I do not blame her, but I think going forward if people truly want to live free they need to give up the conveniences of urbanism and stake out their own land.

  12. Dana Seilhan via Facebook says

    Two other reasons: (1) They have a tendency to ban clotheslines, so if you want to save money on drying clothes in the summer, too bad for you. (2) They also have a tendency to ban metal swingsets, so if you want to set up something for your kids in the yard, it has to be made of wood. Most wood in playsets is pressure-treated with arsenic. Good luck affording the stuff that isn’t.

  13. says

    The first house we bought had an HOA. They dictated everything…there were only 5 types of trees you could have on your property, no clotheslines (although they amended that and let you have retractable ones), every.single.thing. you did to your yard (planting flowers, changing rocks,etc) had to be approved first. One of our neighbors had an aspen tree in their yard, the roots would spring up in our backyard and SOMEHOW (even with an 8 ft fence) someone complained that we were allowing a couple to grow, and we got a warning for having volunteer trees. We will never buy a house with an HOA again. EVER!!

  14. says

    We have an HOA with, fortunately, no such restrictions. I think that the “no edibles in front” is likely to do with the fact that many (not all, or even most) edibles look so ratty when they are spent, or even no-quite-ready, and HOAs fear they will be an eyesore, since it’s hard to draw the line. It makes sense to me. I like the way Local Nourishment (above) handles it – on the down-low. :)

    With Amy’s issue, however, although I definitely think it unfair that she is (possibly) being singled out if there are another hundred homes within her HOA that have fruit trees [if the HOA can't comment, Amy has no idea if they are also subject to the sme letters without asking the individual homeowners], the restriction in the CC&Rs makes sense.

    The HOA apparently did not forbid edibles and fruit trees – according to the above, it only required that they be planted in a screened in patio. Florida has a lot of agriculture business, and I’m guessing the rule is likely to be intended to prevent bug infestations – whether from ag farms to the home grower, or from the home grower to the ag farms. In addition, Amy would (or should) have been made aware of all HOA rules when she bought her home, and may not have any leverage. :(

  15. Vivian R Palmer Harvey via Facebook says

    be careful what we sign our names to…check that list of dos and don’ts with a fine tooth comb..!

  16. Jensey Graham via Facebook says

    It’s kind of like what I’ve said for a long time. All my Democrat (and Independent) friends who hate Republicans … should join THAT party and change it from the inside out.

    • Laura says

      They ARE. Those people are called RINO’s (Republicans in name only), and it’s the reason why the Republicans party is full of sissies and wimps nowadays. Keep the girly-men in the Democrat party, thank you.

  17. Johanna Pedranti via Facebook says

    Our previous neighborhood had a horrible HOA, . They patrol the neighborhood to check and make sure people follow. One neighbor recently after moved in, was told his lawn wasn’t green enough. It is almost impossible to find an area without HOA, and we are 44 miles from Austin in small country neighborhoods. HOA makes it easy for government to control the people since HOA is doing the groundwork…HOA is run by a bunch of power hungry and insecure people who never got any real power or accomplishments so now they need to control other people..How messed up to have the need to make rules so that you can’t plant what you want, or decide what color you want on your house..Never more HOA.

  18. says

    I’ve loathed these things ever since my sister suffered under one, years ago. For laughs, see if you can find the old X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully go under cover (as Rob and Laura Petrie ;-) in planned community where the HOA takes very, VERY drastic steps to curb the non-compliant. Hee hee!

  19. says

    I had an HOA problem in our old home. Our home had been designed with inadequate heating ducts, and our large family room was so difficult to heat that we actually hung a blanket to cut it off from the rest of the house in the winter to keep our heating bills down. It was crazy!

    We decided to replace the fireplace in that room with a gas fireplace, a pellet stove, or a wood-burning fireplace. After checking with the township, we found that we were not permitted to retrofit our fireplace to use a pellet or wood burning fireplace. Since the property had all electric heat, we needed to put a propane tank on the property for a gas fireplace.

    The code enforcement officer for the township gave us specific instructions on what would be required, and it would have been absolutely invisible from the street. However, we needed HOA approval to do it. It took us forever to even get them to consider it, because the committee that needs to do those types of approvals meets only monthly, and the paperwork has to be in a month before the meeting to be considered. Then they canceled a meeting one month because it wasn’t convenient for some of the members. By the time the denied us, we had been waiting 4 months for the approval. Their reason for denying us? They said it wouldn’t be permitted under township code. Never mind that we submitted the letter from the township code enforcement officer stating how we were to proceed. We had to wait another month to try to get them to reconsider, but they wouldn’t.

    Our HOA fee there was $120/month. We were very happy to move away. Our new home has an HOA that essentially does nothing except maintain common grounds (of which there are few) and provides electricity for the street lamps. There is no enforcement of any rules, and the rules are pretty bare-bones as it is. The biggest one is defining the type of property fence allowed. So far, the only people who have joined the board have been interested in maintaining the HOA as a minimalist group. The second that changes, my husband and I will jump in and get involved!

    • KristenM says

      Wow. I would choke on a $120/month HOA fee. That’s outlandish. I hope you had tons of community landscaping and really nice parks to make it worth that much.

  20. says

    I don’t understand why her backyard garden would be a target! Too bad she can’t simply have a privacy fence to block the view. We live in Kentucky. In our middle class subdivision the neighbor behind me has 2 rusted out cars. The neighbor across the street has a rusted van in his driveway. I have 25 chickens, and 5 raised bed, and ducks. Thankfully no HOA here!

  21. Cecilia Long says

    My boyfriend lives in Florida, and most of the HOAs are run and ratted on by old people, who have admitted to him they enjoy the power..the power of controlling others. It is not exclusive, but he lives in an area with a lot of old people communities. I would encourage getting those stupid rules changed! Its ridiculous.

  22. says

    Um, if you want a garden, or your God given freedom, why on earth would you live in an HOA community to begin with? It seems completely absurd to me to live like this. I have to obtain PERMISSION to paint my house or plant tomatoes? Are you kidding? My parents recently painted their home a bright green that I am pretty sure you can see from outer space. It literally reflects off their neighbors cars and house. But where we live, we are FREE to paint our homes as we please, even if it it signaling the aliens to land… I live where you can’t really see our house from the road but we have awful neighbors so I got a rooster to live with my chickens. Just because. I might get 10. I wouldn’t live anywhere that I couldn’t bring home whatever kind of pet I want or grow food for my family. Now, I understand that a rooster in an apartment would be rude and chickens are kind of messy even in a backyard but kept confined to a run and rooster free, folks with small spaces and ANYONE who owns their own place should certainly be able to do as they please with their little piece of earth. I say start a movement, get petitions signed, what ever it takes to change the rules against food gardens. It is just absurd. Or just tell them to go suck your tomato…

  23. Goat Mom says

    So grateful to live where I can hang laundary, plant anything we want anywhere on our property and such for the past 11 years! And loving my goats for milk, cheese and fertilizer too. So thankful living in restricted suburbia is behind us. Praying those who still are will continue to fight to losen these stupid restrictions. Today a garden and growing whatever food you can is a frugal and healthy blessing to any family.

  24. says

    This is so timely for me! We are considering starting a garden this year, but the sunniest places are the front and side yards. We live in a neighborhood with HOA and I’m pretty sure that won’t fly. I think we can get away with container gardening in the back/side yard where there is hopefully enough sun. We are considering moving for this reason. Don’t even get me started on how we are the sore thumb with our lawn. We are the only house that doesn’t have the lawn care guys come once a week and spray tons of chemicals all over the place. Sorry but my kids play there. They sprayed weed killer on the sidewalks in front of our house and my husband had to hold me back.. Oh well, some day we’ll have a beautiful organic lawn, it just takes longer.

    • KristenM says

      Our current HOA gives us the freedom to opt out of having our lawn sprayed. They send out notices and ask that your prominently display the opt out sign on the day the spraying will happen. Perhaps you could ask your HOA to do something similar?

  25. Bevie says

    When I went house shopping one of my criteria was no HOA. People thought I was odd, but I can have my gardens and chickens harrassment-free and when I get around to it I can create great big yard sculptures.

  26. says

    This really is ridiculous! I live in an apartment currently and rely on community garden space, as well as a plot at my mother’s house for my garden. When I do start looking for a house in a few years this post will definitely be on my mind!

  27. says

    We have a similar restriction on growing fruit trees, but given the amount of space we have it would be a struggle to fit them in anyway :)

  28. says

    This is MY garden! I go to sleep every night thinking the HOA will rip out my food while I;m sleeping. What a nightmare. This has been an awakening about the controls we have allowed our society to place on our personal space. I wish I would have realized the control freaks would be upset with a food garden. There are at least 103 other homeowners within our HOA that have fruit trees, I know this because I drove around and wrote down each address! Tha’s just what I can see from a car. Even one of the HOA board member’s have a crab apple tree in their front yard! But I can’t have them in my backyard??? Food is our life’s source. When the first settler’s landed on the land they immediately began to plant food. What has happened to our world? I will fight his until the covenants allow food plants and not just NON-FOOD plants in raised gardens. Wht is a carrot so evil? Thanks for all of your support. BTW, if I could move I would, believe me, but in today’s society selling a house is difficult. Again, thanks for all of your good wishes and support, I need it! Amy

  29. says

    I loved reading your post and I found it interesting to learn about the restrictions ‘those in authority’ are always trying to place on others, especially when it comes to actually trying to create something good. Your readers may find some interest in my blog which has some good stories about chickens and other lifestyle pursuits. Living the dream!

  30. Mike88 says

    Contrary to the popular belief, I believe it is We The People that should be making up the laws for the lawmakers to have to follow and We The people should be enforcing those laws onto the lawmakers and holding them accountable for their gross violations of our laws. That I believe would work much better than a few lawmakers making laws for our entire nation to follow just because they say so and without our concent, or approval.

  31. Kay says

    This is just ridiculous! I was raised in Europe where we know HOA associations only from Desperate Housewives. I though it was a joke before I experienced it myself. They literally force you to sign the papers so that they can exploit you later on – for whatever you do. What’s wrong with edible plants? OMG! Or a fruit tree? I can’t even have strawberries in my backyard? I’ve recently came across a really good guide on how to deal with your HOA what to pay attention to etc. However, no such thing was mentioned there. Do you think it is a common bylaw?

    Good luck Amy, fingers crossed! xx

  32. says

    It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d definitely donate to this
    fantastic blog! I suppose for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding
    your RSS feed to my Google account. I look forward to
    new updates and will share this blog with my Facebook group.

    Talk soon!

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