Evaluating Green Communities: Part 2

So you're buying a new home, and you're committed to "buying green" -- a house with good indoor air quality, that doesn't cost a fortune to heat and cool, is efficient in the use of water, and it resides in an ecologically-friendly neighborhood. How do you find out about all that? What do you look for? What questions do you ask?

Over the next few blogs, to help you evaluate the potential "greenness" of a community in both the short- and long-term, I will post ten questions to ask a developer, realtor, or homeowner. Use them to start a conversation as to what is "green" and this will help one to determine if "greenwashing" is occurring. Questions address home, yard, and neighborhood issues. Questions 3 and 4 are below (for previous questions, see other blogs).

Question #3: Do the Covenants, Codes, and Restrictions (CCRs) address any environmental issues?

Most master planned communities have Covenants, Codes, and Restrictions (CCRs) which act as guidelines to how the community is managed. These help set the flavor and tone of the neighborhood and the CCRs are sometimes attached to the deed of the house. If the community has a homeowner association (HOA), it usually has the power to enforce the CCRs. Thus it behooves a homebuyer to understand what the CCRs regulate -- especially if they don't encourage sustainable practices.

There are several things to look out for: first and foremost, is there language within the document that could prohibit sustainable practices? For example, the CCR document could stipulate that the front yard has to consist of 80 percent lawn. If you (as the homeowner) decide to convert the lawn to more native landscaping, will you be able to do so without penalty?

On the other hand, a good sign is language about land stewardship and conservation of wildlife habitat. Some examples of this include:

  • prohibitions against planting invasive exotic plants (and definitions of what "invasive exotic" means)
  • recommendations about pet care and wildlife (e.g., rules against free-roaming pets)
  • no rules against keeping dead trees (i.e., snags) in place; these are beneficial to woodpeckers and other wildlife species
  • encouragement of landscaping with native plants and a list of native plants

Take a close look at the wording and intent of the document; it should state somewhere that it's in the community's best interests to conserve natural resources. See University of Florida's EDIS document for an example of a CCR that addresses some environmental issues for a town in Florida.

Question #4: What types of plants are used for landscaping within the community?

The plant palette is the selection of plants that a landscape architect (hired by the developer) installs around homes and in shared spaces such as medians and parks. If the developer provides you with a list of plants, the first question to ask is "Which of these plants are native to the area?" Using native plants -- naturally adapted to local climate and soil conditions -- saves water and energy.

Typically, native plants do not require the fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides that non-native species need. If the developer doesn't know which plants in the palette are native -- and can't find somebody who does know -- this indicates how serious he/she really is about conserving natural resources.

The next questions to ask are, "How much of the yard is planted with turf grass? What type of turfgrass is used?" If 50 percent or more of each yard is lawn, the community collectively will consume a good deal of water, pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides taking care of those lawns. Each yard does not have to be entirely devoid of grass -- we do need a place to gather and perhaps grill outdoors -- but it should be much reduced. It's also important to know what type of turf was used. Some species or hybrids of grass require much less water and fertilizer in their upkeep. Some examples of grasses suitable for the South are: Bahia grass, Centipede grass, and Zoysia grass. All have excellent drought tolerance and go dormant during dry periods. When the rain comes, these grasses will turn green again.

The landscape architect should have a good knowledge of which plants work the best in your locality. Grill her/him about why she/he chose and planted certain plants. Below are some common installation mistakes made by landscapers (adapted from University of Florida's "Florida Yards & Neighborhoods", original author Dr. Greg Davis):

Mistake #1: Over-planting

Small trees and shrubs are often planted too close together to get a "full" look. The result, several years later, is a crowded landscape. Plants then must be removed or drastically pruned to reduce competition. Solution: Beware of "instant landscape." The landscape architect should account for the mature size of plants and give them room -- and time -- to grow.

Mistake #2: Lawn areas are cluttered with trees and shrubs.

Plants scattered throughout the lawn appear unorganized. They also create maintenance problems in terms of mowing, raking and giving plants the amount of water they need. Solution: One should group shrubs and trees in mulched plant beds bordering the lawn.

Mistake #3: Plants are planted too close to the house.

Plants too close to the house have an unattractive "cramped" look. They also create a maintenance nightmare when it's time to repair or paint the house. Solution: Foundation or corner shrubs should be planted half their mature width plus one foot away from the wall. Therefore, a shrub that will grow to be five feet wide should be planted 3½ feet (= 2 ½ + 1) away from the house.

Do not be hesitant in finding answers not only about what was planted but also how it was planted. Many mistakes can be made in planting shrubs and trees. This is important because years (or even only months) down the road, you may be dealing with dead and dying trees, shrubs, and other plants that were not installed properly in the first place!

Read Part 1 of "Evaluating Green Communities" here.