2017-01-05 / Front Page
Homeowners, HOA clash over landscape rules
Dispute goes to court
And yet that’s where they’ve found themselves—headed to court to ask a judge to relieve them of thousands of dollars in fines levied by the Westlake Ranch Property Owners Association over their crushed-rock-laden front yard, arguing that a recent state law protects their landscape decision.
Pre-drought HOA rules are clashing with new state-imposed water conservation measures, which means a judge ruling in favor of the DeProspos could be setting a legal precedent, said Southwestern Law School professor Roman Hoyos.
Under existing property law, a court could terminate or modify an HOA’s rule book if the conditions within the community have changed so much that the rule isn’t deemed beneficial anymore, the property and land-use professor told The Acorn.
“I haven’t come across any cases that discuss the impact of climate change on this doctrine. . . . If a plaintiff has the time and money, it’s a question worth pursuing,” Hoyos said.
Since January, when the DeProspos decided to tear up the turf in front of their Mesa Ridge Avenue home and install a flat-gray landscape, they’ve been fined between $250 and $500 a month by the HOA for violating longstanding rules about how front yards should look.
Jeffrey Beaumont, the attorney defending the Westlake Ranch Property Owners Association against the lawsuit, said the association is not opposed to drought-tolerant landscaping or native plants, just the DeProspos’ particular use of stone.
“This is about the aesthetics,” Beaumont said. “From our perspective, it’s more about living in a community that has elected to govern themselves and to agree to certain requirements as far as exterior improvements.”
As part of their defense, the DeProspos are citing the City of Thousand Oaks’ water conservation rules as well as Assembly Bill 2104, otherwise known as the Brown is Beautiful Act.
Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, AB 2104 says that a community’s guidelines can’t be enforced if they forbid water-conservation measures such as installing drought-tolerant plants or artificial turf, or if they require that lawns be watered.
“The question now for the courts comes down to whether an HOA can attempt to enforce guidelines that limit a resident’s ability to comply with state and local ordinances,” Richard DeProspo said.
Beaumont doesn’t think the doesn’t think the homeowners’ defense holds water.
The Westlake Ranch community encourages homeowners to install and use water-efficient plants. And the attorney said the association’s bylaws comply with AB 2104 because the bill’s intent is that residents shouldn’t be forced to maintain their lawns in a drought, he said.
“There are no prohibitions here. If a homeowner decides to stop watering, a homeowner association cannot fine them for that,” the attorney said.
Beaumont, who sits on a legislative committee looking at water issues affecting homeowners associations, said he knows of no existing case law about a community’s landscaping guidelines being challenged under AB 2104.
Judge to decide
The DeProspos’ complaint, filed in November in Ventura County Superior Court, alleges that the association’s board applied its 40-year-old landscaping guidelines in an “arbitrary, inconsistent and capricious” fashion when it rejected the rock-garden design and started issuing monthly fines.
Though he does believe the association’s guidelines are outdated, Richard DeProspo told The Acorn he isn’t suing to force a rule change. He said he simply wants to be treated equally and fairly by the board, which previously approved similar landscaping plans for other homes in the neighborhood that also use crushed rock.
“There are five properties that had rock in their landscapes before we put this in,” he said.
Beaumont said the HOA board looks at each request for exterior changes separately and must consider a range of factors. In the DeProspos’ case, their new landscaping is clearly visible from the street, he said.
“They may not understand how each case is very unique and determined on the characteristics of that property and its location and makeup,” Beaumont said.
Richard DeProspo, a local financial adviser, said he was forced to turn to litigation after the association’s board refused to allow a third party to referee the dispute. The homeowners wanted binding mediation—the association wouldn’t go for it, he said.
Now both sides will argue their cases before a judge. They are required to be in court April 12, according to court records.
AB 2104 doesn’t prevent a community association from applying landscaping rules as long as they don’t conflict with a water-conservation ordinance or a declared drought emergency.
The law specifically protects homeowners’ use of drought-tolerant plants but doesn’t mention which nonplant materials would be acceptable under the change in law.
DeProspo said he decided on rock instead of a more aesthetically pleasing chipped bark for his property because his home off Kanan Road sits in a fire zone.
“If a mediator or a judge told me that what I did was a violation, I’d have crews out here the next day removing it,” DeProspo said.