SAN RAMON -- Fran Paxson figured to get a little credit and admiration when she replaced the old lawn around her suburban San Ramon home with drought-resistant plants.

Her public water supplier is even rewarding her with a rebate.

But her homeowners association -- drought and a new state law be darned -- is punishing her with a fine.

Paxson's plight is turning up the heat in the conflict between the aesthetics and the thirst of water-hungry green lawns as California struggles through a third year of drought.

The Twin Creeks South Estate Homes Association in San Ramon informed Paxson three weeks ago that it is fining her $50 a month until she puts lawn back in 25 percent of her recently landscaped front yard. "It would look better," the association wrote.

Paxson said the association board members said her lawn-free front yard would lower neighborhood property values.

"I think it's ridiculous for a homeowners association to threaten a fine to force someone to put in lawn in a drought," said Paxson, a retired elementary schoolteacher. "It's just wrong on so many levels."

She said she hired a contractor to overhaul her front yard with California native plants on drip irrigation to save money and water and provide a sustainable landscaping. The homeowners association told her she should keep grass in 25 percent of the area, but Paxson went ahead with the new landscaping anyway.

"I didn't just cover my front yard with volcanic rock," she said.


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A spokesman for the homeowners group did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment. But in a July 31 letter to Paxson, the board wrote that it "feels that your front yard appearance would look better with the percentage of turf that was approved by the architectural committee."

A board member of the East Bay Municipal Utility District -- the public water supplier to San Ramon -- said the board is out of line and setting a bad example for managing water in a drought.

"I am amazed by this," said John Coleman, an EBMUD director from Walnut Creek. "The homeowners association is completely out of touch."

Coleman said the board's action appears to clash with the spirit of a new state law barring homeowners associations from fining homeowners for letting their lawns turn brown during droughts, and another in the works that prohibits fines for removing grass.

The language of a the new law authored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 22 "protects homeowners from being penalized for doing the right thing by conserving during the drought." That bill took effect immediately.

A second bill headed to the governor's desk prohibits homeowners associations from fining residents who replace lawns with drought resistant landscaping. The bill will take effect Jan. 1 if the governor signs it.

"It is time for people to wake up and realize we need water in California to put food on the table rather than to grow lush lawns," said bill author Lorena Gonzalez, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego.

Gonzalez said of Paxson: "She is a hero."

Meanwhile, Coleman has asked EBMUD's managers and lawyers to determine if the water district has authority to get the homeowners group to back down.

Paxson submitted her landscaping plans this summer to both the water district and her homeowners association. EBMUD said her plans met guidelines to qualify her for a district rebate to convert lawns to low-water use landscaping -- a program offered by many Bay Area water districts. Her homeowners board and a board architectural committee endorsed most of her plan but told her to keep 25 percent in grass.

While waiting to hear the final decision, Paxson went ahead with the lawn removal, installing a mint-like ground cover in the disputed area.

She said she thought she would win her appeal because a few other homes in her development lack lawns, or have brown or dead-looking grass.

Danville real estate salesman Bernard Gibbons supported Paxson's appeal in a letter.

"A front lawn does not have the appeal it once did," Gibbons wrote to the homeowners group. "I can assure you that any suggestion that a professionally landscaped, low-water-use front yard would have a negative on home values appears to be without foundation."

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.