A defiant Maryland couple fought back against their neighbors who complained their garden was not manicured enough — and wound up changing state law in the process.
Janet and Jeff Crouch decided to take their homeowners’ association to court after it told them that their native garden, designed to help the local ecosystem, was an eyesore and violated the association’s bylaws.
As they fought back in the county court system, the New York Times reports, a state legislator took notice and decided to draft a bill preventing homeowners associations from banning pollinator pants or rain gardens, or from requiring property owners to plant turf grass.
The bill soon earned bipartisan support and became law in October 2021, making Maryland the first state to limit homeowner association control over eco-friendly yards.
Janet and Jeff Crouch fought back against their homeowners’ association after it told them that their native garden, designed to help the local ecosystem, was an eyesore and violated the association’s bylaws
The Maryland couple started to build their native garden in Beech Creek at the behest of Janet’s sister, a native plant proponent known as the Humane Gardener
Native gardens ar designed to help the local ecosystem and provide food for local pollinators
The Crouches first moved to Beech Creek, a neighborhood bordering the city of Columbia, in 1999 and decided soon afterwards to stop using fertilizers and pesticides, which they say deepened their connection to the property that backs onto some woods.
‘You’re thinking more about the soil and its inhabitants and how it fits together in the ecosystem,’ said Janet, who works for the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
At the behest of her sister, Nancy Lawson, a native plant proponent known as the Humane Gardener, the couple soon started to add indigenous and pollinator-friendly plants like cornflowers, cardinal flower and phlox.
But as their garden grew, the Times reports, their next door neighbor, Daniel O’Rourke, became increasingly irate.
In 2012, he began emailing the Beech Creek Homeowner’s Association, complaining that the Crouches’ yard was overrun with weeds, figurines and barrels filled with rainwater — though the couple would later dispute these claims.
O’Rourke claimed he couldn’t enjoy his property due to the ‘mess of a jungle’ next door.
At the time, the Crouches did not realize anything was wrong. They said they remained cordial with O’Rourke, waving at him from the driveway and even once lending him a ladder.
But O’Rourke continued to complain, saying the yard was attracting rodents, deer, snakes and bats and that they were planting shrubs and bushes in no particular order.
The homeowners’ association ignored his concerns at first, Janet said in an interview with Washington Gardener, but when he started to use his official title as assistant inspector general for Investigations, Legal Services Corporation and his .gov email, the association started to take notice.
It then sent the couple a letter in September 2017 saying the Crouches a letter saying their yard was in need of seasonal maintenance.
They said they heeded the request, but just two months later they received a cease-and-desist order saying if they didn’t change their yard back to a ‘neat, clean’ lawn thy could face fines or worse.
Janet and Jeff Crouch hired a lawyer and called every environmental group they could think of, along with local legislators before reaching a settlement in 2020
Their next door neighbor became irate about their growing garden and started to complain about to the homeowners’ association in 2012
The couple planted indigenous and pollinator-friendly plants like cornflowers, cardinal flower and phlox
The homeowners association said their yard was in need of seasonal maintenance before sending them a cease and desist in late 2017
The couple then hired a lawyer and called every environmental group they could think of, along with local legislators.
After a year and a half, as the Crouches remained in a standstill with the homeowners’ association, they filed a complaint in the Howard County Circuit Court claiming that in 2011 they had been told there were no issues with their gardens and that before 2017 they had received no violations for their yard despite regular inspections.
Just two months after the suit was filed, though, a Maryland state representative asked if thy would allow their case to form the basis of a new state law.
The state had been contending with devastating floods, including the 2018 submersion of Ellicott City, as well as mounting concerns about pesticide runoff to Chesapeake Bay.
Terri Hill then worked to draft the legislation forbidding homeowner associations from banning pollinator plants or rain gardens in an effort to promote the environment.
‘It’s a really small effort in the face of the international work that needs to be done,’ she told the Times. ‘But it’s nice that individuals in the community are able to feel that they are empowered to make a difference.’
The Crouches were finally able to reach a settlement in December 2020, under which they were allowed to keep virtually all of their garden intact but agreed to remove plants within three feet of their neighbor’s land and six feet of the sidewalk.
They would have to replace the plants in those areas with some sort of grass — they chose the native Pennsylvania sedge.
Under the agreement, the couple was allowed to keep virtually all of their garden intact but agreed to remove plants within three feet of their neighbor’s land and six feet of the sidewalk
The benefits of planting a native garden
Native plants are those that occur naturally in a region in which they evolved.
- They are therefore part of the larger ecosystem, growing in harmony with the environment, the soil, the water supply, the varying weather throughout all the seasons.
- They provide food for the local pollinators like birds and bees, as well as refuge for small animals and microscopic organisms in the soil.
- They require much less watering, fertilizer, and pesticides and can actually prevent water run-off and improve air quality.
- Native plants can also help decrease pollution because they eliminate the need for mowers and other equipment.
- The long-term upkeep of native plants can be dramatically less costly than turf grass, as well as take less time.
Source: American Society of Landscape Architects
Their actions have now inspired others throughout the state, with their lawyer Jeff Kohntroff now resolving not to use pesticides and deciding to lave a tree that fell in his yard so animals could create a habitat.
Another Maryland couple, John Hussey and Emma Qin, meanwhile, were able to point to the new law after their homeowner association objected to weeds in their lawn, which they mowed but kept pesticide free.
Janet is now encouraging others to fight back against their homeowner associations if they try to stop them from building native gardens.
Speaking to Washington Gardener over the summer she said she has ‘found that boards often double-down on their demands when homeowners stick up for themselves.’
‘Given the innate power imbalance in HOAs, homeowners should become very familiar with their community’s governing documents and ensure that they are compliant with them.
‘Once a homeowner is armed with the facts of the case and the community guidelines, they should try to work with their board to bring the matter to a resolution if at all possible,’ she explained.
But if that does not work, she said ‘homeowners may consider familiarizing themselves with relevant state and local laws; retaining an attorney; seeking out local community groups or other homeowners who have been through similar experiences; and posting on relevant social media groups for assistance.’
The couple, themselves, wound up spending $60,000 on legal fees, she said, while the homeowners association spent nearly $100,000.
Community homeowner associations govern some 74million Americans, the New York Times reports, and are tasked with making sure yards are maintained.
They believe that they could protect home values by ensuring a consistent appearance across property lines.
There have therefore been several cases like the Crouches, where homeowners want to convert their lawns into ecosystems that help the local insect, bird and wildlife populations stave off extinction.
These types of gardens are becoming more prevalent in the US, with the National Wildlife Federation reporting that in 2020 there was a 50 percent increase in people creating wildlife gardens certified by the organizations.
At the same time, Taylor Morrison, a major homebuilding company partnered with the NWF to plant more native species in its communities nationwide.
But ecologist Douglas W Tallamy said it was really the Crouches efforts that will make a difference.
‘Maryland was a big deal,’ he told the Times. ‘Now people know if they fight back, they can win.’