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County: Wilting beats watering

Hillsborough’s conservation proposals include easing pressure on residents of new deed-restricted neighborhoods to water their lawns.

By BILL VARIAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2001


TAMPA -- Mongtan Pham has watched her lawn wither with the drought.

But it didn't bother her until she got the second letter from a property manager saying she wasn't cutting neighborhood standards and needed to water her yard.

"If I follow the homeowners association, then I get in trouble with the law," Mrs. Pham said.

For months now, water authorities have been telling people to limit the sprinkling or face stiff fines and escalating utility bills. But for residents of Tampa Bay's many deed-restricted communities, that means inviting the scorn of homeowner groups.

Many such restricted communities attach rules requiring homeowners to keep their lawns green. Some even prescribe the type of grass -- usually the lushest, thirstiest variety.

Now Hillsborough commissioners are considering a ban on such requirements for new neighborhoods. The proposal is part of a package of initiatives they will consider Wednesday to more closely weigh land use decisions against water limitations.

Ending watering requirements in deed-restricted neighborhoods may be among the most concrete of the ideas on the table. But commissioners also will consider several technical changes that could prove more sweeping.

Among them are revisions that would enable commissioners to reject or limit, if water is not available, rezoning or subdivision proposals that can lead to more intensive development. Regional water officials also would more closely monitor construction plans to get a more accurate picture of future water demands as commissioners consider those rezoning requests.

"Commissioners will have a better idea of what's out there before voting on a rezoning," said County Attorney Emeline Acton, who has been working on the proposals for months. "As they're getting closer and closer to the limit, they may be able to deny that subdivision."

Among the other dozen or so proposals:

Requiring sprinkler systems for commercial and other properties that do a better job of directing limited amounts of water to the plants that need them, instead of on streets and sidewalks.

Better marketing of the water restrictions to hammer home the crisis.

Restricting the sprawl of pavement around new development so rainwater soaks into the ground instead of flowing to sewer lines and the bay.

Banning outdoor carwashes, a proposal that got the coolest welcome from civic groups who vetted the package.

But the deed restriction ban could attract the most attention from residents who sometimes choose their new neighborhoods in part because of their attractive landscaping.

Mrs. Pham didn't realize their was such a provision when she moved into her Lake Ventana Drive home in northwest Hillsborough four years ago. Then she got a letter last summer from her homeowner association suggesting she have her lawn replanted and treated for pests.

She ignored it. Then came another letter in February, telling her to water her yard.

"The woman next door to me was just fined," Mrs. Pham said. "So I didn't do it."

Instead, Mrs. Pham passed the letter along to the Hillsborough Water Department, which was powerless to do anything about it. Government has little control over deed restrictions in existing subdivisions, which must be challenged in court.

John Fischer, spokeman for Hillsborough Public Utilities Department, said county water workers hear the same refrain often. While some deed-restricted neighborhoods have scaled back enforcement of green-grass provisions in light of the drought, some still press the issue, he said.

"Basically the line is, they're not being understanding, so for us it's a significant problem," he said.

Attempts to reach the property manager for Mrs. Pham's neighborhood Friday were not successful.

- Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or at varian@sptimes.com.

Water proposals

Requiring sprinkler systems for commercial and other properties that do a better job of directing limited amounts of water to the plants that need them, instead of on streets and sidewalks.

Better marketing of the water restrictions to hammer home the crisis.

Restricting the sprawl of pavement around new development so rainwater soaks into the ground instead of flowing to sewer lines and the bay.

Banning outdoor carwashes, a proposal that got the coolest welcome from civic groups who vetted the package.

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