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HOA leaders tell how they transformed neighborhood with water-saving landscaping — and saved money on the projects as well

"No other major renovation project gives you a significant and immediate return on investment."

"No other major renovation project gives you a significant and immediate return on investment."

Photo Credit: Richard Theisen

While many homeowners associations in America stand between residents and eco-friendly, water-wise updates, one HOA has gone the opposite direction by making money-saving and environmentally conscious upgrades to common areas.

For Paul Morsen and Richard Theisen, the president and the treasurer of the Hampton Bay Homeowners Association, converting to water-wise plants was "a no-brainer." As Theisen told The Cool Down in an interview: "The concern over the adverse economic and environmental impact of the drought as well as the continually increasing water/sewer rates has been a topic of discussion at our Board meeting for years."

Hampton Bay is in Solano County, California, an area plagued by a multiyear megadrought. The lack of water has worried leaders and scientists, and it's also driven up costs — especially for households and organizations that keep water-guzzling lawns.

"After we (the entire state, actually) realized that the purported drought-ending rainy season of 2017 was actually a fluke, I, as the treasurer, began monitoring expenses and usage more closely," said Theisen. "We used the Board meetings as the primary means to build an awareness of the increasing problem as well as a homeowner consensus on the solution: replace turf with water-wise plants and targeted irrigation."

Water-wise plants, such as native or drought-resistant species, don't need nearly as much irrigation as grass. That means savings for the owners while preserving that water for more important uses — such as drinking and agriculture.

The Hampton Bay HOA adopted a three-phase solution.

First, it replaced thirsty plants and shrubs with drought-tolerant plants and mulch. The mulch helps prevent evaporation, so the little water that is used lasts longer.

Then the HOA was ready for the main event. "Phase 1 and 2 served as a learning curve, which in turn, served to establish the groundwork for Phase 3: converting turf into sustainable landscaping," Theisen said. "In Phase 3, we engaged Sustainable Solano [and] designated a 1,000-square-foot lawn area as the pilot site."

Sustainable Solano, a grassroots organization aimed at creating more eco-friendly spaces throughout the county, jumped at the chance to help a 100-home HOA establish water-wise landscaping where there once was grass.

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🔘 The way it looks 🤩

🔘 The way my family uses it 👪

🔘 It's enjoyable to mow 😎

🔘 It's cheap to maintain 💰

🗳️ Click your choice to see results and speak your mind

"I toured [Theisen] and a few other HOA members in a food forest garden, followed by a pollinator garden since they didn't want food," Nicole Newell of Sustainable Solano told The Cool Down. 

Instead, the HOA went with a beautiful mixture of native species. "Plants used include milkweed, silver lupin, ceanothus, California poppies, and yarrow," said Newell.

According to Newell, the design went beyond just a few flowers: "The program started with a focus on water efficiency, and now it's more 'whole system thinking.' … Who is caring for the land and spending time in that space? How can we capture water, build healthy soil, create habitat for pollinators, and save water by replacing the lawn?"

To ease the process, Morsen and Theisen also worked with the Solano County Water Agency.

"The Hampton Bay HOA was helmed by a very informed and passionate board that sought to make their landscaping more water-efficient and drought-resilient," the SCWA's Elise Shtayyeh told TCD. "Unfortunately, we do not have as many HOAs participating in our program as we would like to see. However, our organization has a wealth of resources that are available to HOAs like Hampton Bay."

As Morsen and Theisen discovered, it's well worth seeking those resources. When asked about the benefits and drawbacks of the program, Theisen said there have only been benefits. "No other major renovation project gives you a significant and immediate return on investment," he said. "Turf replacement can yield 60-80% water savings. (No kidding!)"

The program has been so successful that Newell is seeing other HOAs take interest. "Hampton Bay had a sign in their yard to announce the new landscaping, and the Bay Vista HOA across the street saw it and filled out a form to connect with me," she said. "We are working on a project now with Bay Vista that will be funded by the Solano County Water Agency because it is open to annual tours."

Many states, regions, and utility companies offer rebates and other incentives for completing projects that save water or energy. Those interested can use tools such as Save Our Water to find additional money-saving opportunities.

For HOAs that want to try water-wise landscaping, Theisen had this advice: "Stagger the effort and start small. Build awareness, gain consensus, establish a funding strategy, plan well, find contractors you can trust … and don't be afraid to make mistakes."

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