COLUMBIA, Maryland — The grass really is greener on the other side — and Janet and Jeff Crouch are good with that. If it were up to them, they would have no grass in their front yard at all.
“Pesticides, fertilizers,” lists Jeff Crouch, lamenting the popular manicured grass lawns that require a lot of upkeep but don’t serve much more of an environmental purpose.
“Grass is a dead zone,” adds his wife, Janet Crouch.
Instead, their Columbia, Maryland front yard is a lush, eco-friendly oasis with a variety of plants covering most of the way from their front door to the sidewalk.
“We learned about other gardening, native gardening, native plants in the area that are better for the birds, butterflies and bugs, even,” said Jeff Crouch, with much of the credit going to Janet’s sister, who writes extensively on the subject.
Over the years the plot grew into something that wasn’t just perfect for pollinators.
“It's good for calming. It's good for just being out in nature,” Jeff Crouch said.
“There are so many things in our lives that we have no control over,” added Janet Crouch. “But what we do on our own patch of land, we do.”
But that feeling was uprooted with a 2017 notice from their homeowners’ association. It declared the Crouches in violation of community ordinances setting standards for landscaping.
“We had been gardening this way for over a decade, probably closer to 15 years, when we got a letter from the HOA telling us that we had to take it all out and replace it with turf grass,” Janet said. “And to us, that was really a nonstarter. I mean, fundamentally wrong. We did not believe that we were in violation of any rules in our community."
“It was literally one person complaining,” added Janet.
They installed signage explaining their intent — not wilderness, but nature. It wasn’t good enough, and the HOA dug in to their demand.
“We decided that we would fight back,” Janet Crouch said. “We did have the power and the ability to do that. A lot of people don't when they are faced with HOA overreach.”
Attorney Jeff Kahntroff at Skipper Law, LLC helps homeowners stand up to their HOAs.
“The Crouches came to me after they tried to resolve this dispute with their HOA on their own and were unable to,” he said. “You always try to start by working it out. One of the problems is that a lot of people support the homeowners, but they're unwilling to speak up for fear that they're going to be the next target. You know, now your front door's the wrong color, your shingles have the wrong color, or you're in violation, too.”
The turf war wasn’t cheap. The Crouches estimate the HOA spent about $100,000 of community money in the fight, They spent about $60,000 of their own.
“They have so much power. If you get one or two people that like the power and like to tell you what to do...” said Jeff Crouch. “It caused us incredible amounts of pain and suffering, unnecessarily, to create a pollinator garden.”
After three years, it was time to settle: With just a few minor changes along the sidewalk, the Crouches could relax in their front yard, as is.
“Eventually, our president and others were voted out and there's a nice president now that's definitely into the environment,” said Jeff Crouch.
The Crouch family victory wasn’t just about their garden or even their neighborhood: They successfully lobbied to change the law across the state of Maryland.
“We got an email from a legislative assistant to our state representative Terri Hill, and she was interested in writing legislation to protect people in our situation,” said Janet. “And so she did. And it eventually became law.”
House Bill 322, signed in 2021, ensures homeowner’s associations across Maryland cannot enact rules prohibiting “low impact” landscaping–the environmentally conscious plants and flowers the Crouches prefer to turf grass.
"We have had other homeowners who have benefited from the law who, as a result of the law, inform their HOAs: 'Hey, this new law passed and you can't make me get rid of my native plants,'” said Kahntroff. “And it has helped others.”
The Crouches acknowledge that their case might make some neighborhoods nervous.
“People say that it brings down property values. But what we found out is that a lot of people are looking for yards like this with native plants and environmentally friendly landscaping,” said Janet Crouch. “Our next-door neighbor sold her house last fall for the highest amount ever in our neighborhood.”
They say they’re usually greeted by neighbors who are interested in the plants they are growing and their gardening techniques, which don’t include letting things run wild.
“If people don't cut their grass, they can get a notice or something,” said Jeff Crouch, pointing out that the effort they put in is not the same as neglecting neighborly upkeep. “You have to take care of your yard just like you would any other yard.”
The grass may be greener in other yards, but it would be more natural to keep up with the Crouches.
“If homeowners turned over their lawns into habitats instead of turf grass lawns,” said Janet, “it's really amazing what could happen.”