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Polis signs law expanding environmental options for home landscaping in Colorado

Oct 19, 2023

BOULDER, Colo. — Gov. Jared Polis has signed into law a measure that would change Coloradans’ Homeowner Association rules.

Around 60% of Coloradans live under a HOA, according to a press release from the governor's office. Under the newly confirmed State Senate Bill 178, homeowners can now swap their grass lawns for alternatives like turf that require less water.

Previously, state law granted an exception for an HOA to adopt design or aesthetic guidelines that apply to "nonvegetative turf grass and drought-tolerant vegetative landscapes." The association was allowed to regulate the type, number and placement of drought-tolerant plants installed on a homeowner's property.

SB 23-178 states that an association's guidelines now cannot:

This law fits into a larger trend across the state and country over the last few years.

In 2021, a Broomfield homeowners association forced a family to tear out their artificial turf that they had just installed.

"We are very conscientious of water conservation. We all lived through the horrible fires of Colorado last year, the drought," said Kelly Armstrong, the owner of that home.

She received a letter from her HOA saying it was the group's duty ""to protect the aesthetic appeal and property values in the neighborhood."

Armstrong fought back, citing other neighbors who also had turf. However, the HOA denied her appeal, threatening fines of $10 a day if the turf wasn't torn out. If she was not a member in good standing, she would not be allowed in the recreation center where she volunteers.

Other communities in the Denver metro area have taken a different approach.

In 2022, our partners at The Denver Post reported that Castle Rock passed a measure to limit the amount of water-intensive "cool-season turf" installed at new homes.

Nearly half of the water the town uses is for outdoor irrigation and water officials estimate Castle Rock could achieve a reduction of 52% in future outdoor water use if less thirsty turf — like fescue or Kentucky bluegrass — is planted and more drought-tolerant native vegetation is grown, a practice known as xeriscaping.

At the beginning of 2023, Aurora Water started to offer rebates to cover the cost of replacing lawns with xeriscaping.

According to Aurora Water, every 1,000 square feet of grass requires about 17,500 gallons of water if the lawn is set up as 100% efficient, which is very difficult to achieve.

The department will accept applications for their Grass Replacement Incentive Program (GRIP) from homeowners who want to swap out traditional lawns for things like mulch, rock and drought resistant plants.

"We offer funds to help cover the cost of the materials and a portion of some of the other costs, like labor disposal fees, tool rentals, those kinds of things. For residential, the total maximum amount that somebody is eligible for is $4,000. That's $3,000 towards materials and $1,000 for those other items, " said Tim York, Aurora's Water conservation manager.

To qualify, applicants need to remove at least 500 square feet of existing grass lawn from a front yard.

A group of 30 agencies, including Denver, that supply water to homes and businesses throughout the western United States has pledged to rip up lots of decorative grass to help keep water in the over-tapped Colorado River.

The agreement illustrates an accelerating shift in the American West away from well-manicured grass that has long been a totem of suburban life, having taken root alongside streets, around fountains and between office park walkways.

Denver Water Spokesperson Todd Hartman said the city hoped to replace roughly 75 million square feet (7 million square meters) of non-functional turf but didn't share how much water that would conserve. He said the agency hopes to roll out programs by 2024.

The letter doesn't include any commitments from agriculture, which uses about 80% of the allocated water in the seven states that rely on the river — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.