Sign of the drought: A conflict over lawn-watering

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Monica Wilson’s rental unit, one in a fourplex on Arbecam in Cortez, shows the most landscaping of any of the units. Her landlords have said she is watering too much. Photo by David Long

Frustrations over the prolonged drought have manifested themselves in sundry ways, sparking an increase in thefts of irrigation water, as well as conflicts of a more personal nature.

In one unusual case, an argument over watering a lawn could leave a disabled Cortez woman homeless just as the blistering heat turns toward autumn’s chill.

Monica Wilson, who has resided in a onebedroom apartment on Arbecam Street for the past four years, appears unwilling to budge over her use of water to maintain her lawn and the landscaping she has installed during her tenancy, and Calixto and Bonnie Cabrera, who own the low-income complex, have gone from being accommodating on other issues during her residency to demanding Wilson leave by the end of the month. (Her rental arrangement is a month-bymonth lease that can be terminated by either party.)

As all stories do, this one has two sides, and at this point there is a growing feeling that any resolution of the conflict between the parties other than by her eviction is unlikely.

What some might see as a rather petty dispute over the responsibility of a $50 water bill has blossomed like an invasive weed into a larger issue involving environmental principles as well as financial responsibility.

The Cabreras have owned the four-unit complex since 2006, when they purchased the property for $165,000. They also own two other low-income rental units in Cortez, one on Montezuma Avenue and another on Seventh Street, and according to Bonnie Cabrera, have good relationships with most of their tenants, going as far as accepting partial rental payments when times are tough and making other accommodations for their occupants, many of whom rely on HUD vouchers.

Wilson said she has a master’s degree in library science and a degree in biology, served for 10 years on the Fort Lewis College faculty as a science specialist for Reed Library, and later worked at the Denver Botanic Gardens.

But while working in Denver and living in Colorado Springs with her mother in a house with a 50-year-old furnace, she began feeling sick. Doctors were unable to diagnose the problem, but she continued to feel so exhausted she ultimately quit her job.


Monica Wilson picks tomatoes from her small kitchen
garden. Photo by Gail Binkly

She did not suspect carbon-monoxide poisoning because they had a CO detector and it showed everything was fine; unfortunately, she said, it wasn’t working.

The person who finally found the problem was with the public-utility company. A friend had told her that her water heater smelled of gas, so she had the utility worker come out. He checked the air in her home and immediately had her go outside in the snow and throw open all the windows.

“He said, ‘I’m surprised you’re still alive,’” she recounted.

The prolonged poisoning left her with brain damage that has badly weakened her short-term memory, she said, though her long-term memory remains intact.

She said that, still unable to work full-time, she spent all her savings and, after her mother died, wound up homeless and camping for four months on the San Miguel River with her cat. It was an experience that had both good and bad points.

“There are aspects of it I can remember fondly, but it was also very scary because winter was coming,” she said.

She said her entire ordeal “has been an interesting experience.”

“I have seen an aspect of life I never would have seen before,” she said quietly.

She was finally able to obtain a disability payment of about $800 a month – her rent is paid through a HUD voucher – and located her current abode, which she shares with her dog and cat.

All went well for the first few years, she recently recounted during an interview with the Free Press.

The first summer, she still wasn’t feeling well and stayed indoors. The next summer she grew a few flowers with no problems.

In August 2012, she said, her landlords complained of a utility bill they felt was too high. (The four units share a common water meter, so determining exactly which unit is using how much water cannot be ascertained.)

However, that did not result in any major problems at the time.


A unit at the other end of the fourplex shows the type of growth that would
occur without watering the lawn. Photo by David Long

This summer, however, her proclivity for sprucing up her yard with plants and flowers, including a small vegetable garden, has caused her landlords to object to the increasing water bill.

Wilson has created small islands of xeriscaping in the lawn, using plants dug from BLM land and others bought on sale at local nurseries. In addition, she admits to lightly watering the grass and weeds on the remainder of the property outside her unit.

The Cabreras blame Wilson’s maintenance of her yard – which, compared to the others in the fourplex, certainly has a more lush complexion – for a sizable increase in water and sewer bills, which in one month this summer increased more than $100 over the standard winter bills.

On Aug. 2, the Cabreras received a notice from the city complaining that the grass and weeds on the property exceeded the maximum height allowed under the city code, and had to pay someone to trim them.

Last month Wilson was warned in a letter from the Cabreras that her unfettered use of water could not continue.

“Initially, we had no objections to a ‘garden’ around your unit in flowerbeds,” Wilson was informed Aug. 8. “But to have such a lush lawn during a drought is not something we support or allow.

“From Aug. 9 forward you are not allowed to have a lawn. Stop watering the lawn only and allow it to go natural as the other three units are. You may continue to have a small garden around your unit and flowerbeds only. Please keep in mind that excess water use will be billed to you for the garden if it exceeds the base rates that we pay for each unit.”

The letter calculated that Wilson owed $53.75 for the extra water she had used in June, with July’s water bill yet to come.

But this notice inspired Wilson to respond with an angry letter dated Aug. 12 in which she accused the Cabreras of “pious hypocrisy” because they had written that they “are not willing to support a lush lawn in drought conditions – we do not believe it is a prudent use of limited natural resources. . . ”

“Your reasoning on every point you attempted to make was fallacious at best,” Wilson wrote in response, “and your logic has no basis in reality.”

She wrote that the weeds they’d seen flourishing when they drove past on Aug. 2 were the result of recent monsoon rains, not her watering, and that the greenery around the fourplex is not Kentucky bluegrass but mostly Russian thistle, kochia, and other weeds.

“You have no idea of whom you are addressing your threats to,” she wrote.

“Apparently you believe that I am some foolish woman with a brain injury, getting on in years who can be cowed into submission and/or be duped into some false admission of guilt in the face of your supposed higher moral ground,” Wilson wrote.

“I imagine I am about as foolish as any other human being and my disability does give me great difficulty with my short-term memory. However, my long-term memory is just fine – excellent even.”

Wilson, while not denying her increased water usage, also offered some other plausible explanations for the higher bills – such as a broken and leaking outdoor faucet that went unrepaired for several days despite her notifying Cabrera three times by voice mail, and a large family of adults and young children in one unit who have since moved, but whose use of water, she maintains, had been quite liberal.

She wrote that it was ridiculous to call for the yard to go back to a “natural” state.

“There is NO going back to ANYTHING without water,” she wrote the Cabreras. “Plants – even weeds – don’t work that way. Nothing grows in the summer heat and the ground is a dusty bare brown. This place becomes the glaring exception in an otherwise well tended neighborhood.”

She further stated, “When there’s no watering done whatsoever, this place looks like hell and it’s a major eyesore, Frankly, all the neighbors with their own nice yards resent how this place brings down their own property values.

“Finally, since you are such dedicated environmentalists, you should have noticed the xeriscaping I’ve been putting in on YOUR property at my OWN expense.”

Wilson maintained that she did not owe the $53.75 and suggested that the Cabreras could increase the HUD-paid rent by up to $28, an amount allowed by HUD, a month as a way to cover the additional water expenses.

But Bonnie Cabrera, a former attorney and prosecutor in California who no longer practices law, tells a far different version of the dispute, asserting that Wilson had initially been given permission to have a small garden and a few flowers in her yard, but eventually was told her water usage had gotten out of hand and that she should cease all her watering efforts on the lawn.

Although she wishes Wilson well, Cabrera said, she is tired of dealing with the mercurial moods of her tenant.

The final straw, she said, was the hostile missive penned by Wilson on Aug. 12.

Cabrera said it does not appear any resolution of the conflict would be possible considering what has recently transpired. “Not at this point, because we received back a seven-page incoherent, rambling letter covering so many things it’s almost indescribable,” she said. “I didn’t even realize that she was this deteriorated mentally until this happened, [but] it sort of makes sense in light of some of the challenges we’ve had with her for the last couple years. I guess I didn’t realize that when I was explaining things to her she wasn’t understanding them, or that she was very, very scared or paranoid or something.”

Cabrera said Wilson gets along great with some of her neighbors but is very antagonistic with others. “She runs hot and cold.”

Wilson, who gave a copy of the Aug. 12 letter to the Free Press, admitted it was angry and hostile, but said she is subject to fits of temper because of her brain problems and the post-traumatic stress disorder she has because of her experiences with homelessness.

Cabrera said she considers herself an environmentalist and believes maintaining a green lawn is ecologically unwise.

“She ranted on and on about how we’re not environmentalists, but she doesn’t know anything about us. I am against fracking and various things that are going on in our national parks.

“We’ve allowed our own lawn to go brown, we own two other properties in town and they don’t have their lawns, and we never told her she couldn’t have a lawn, or a garden, but last summer we ended up paying $100 more just for August.

“So I said, ‘We’ll call it good for this summer (2012) but next summer if this happens you’re going to have to pay for the extra water. She absolutely insists that her yard is not the reason my water [bill] is going up, but this is the second summer in a row that it’s done it.”

Wilson’s yard “looks beautiful, almost like a golf course,” Cabrera said, “and we told her she could continue to do this, but you at least have to pay for the extra expense we’re incurring, and she just went ballistic.”

Cabrera said she wasn’t aware for quite some time that Wilson had a disability.

“She has accused us of discriminating against her under the American Disabilities Act, but my husband and I didn’t even know that she considers herself disabled. She doesn’t come across that way.”

Cabrera said she and her husband had been very lenient with Wilson and could have evicted her more than a year ago because she got her dog without permission in violation of her lease, but they didn’t. Cabrera offered to have some other tenants attest to their being good landlords, and one did call the Free Press at deadline to support the Cabreras.

Their requiring Wilson to leave now is not an eviction, she said.

“Either of us has the option with 30 days’ notice to not continue this lease and that’s what we’re doing,” Cabrera said.

“She’s shown she’s not going to take responsibility for the extra water she’s been using and she’s been very rude to my husband over the last two years – and to myself.”

Wilson, however, said she may have to resist leaving and force the Cabreras to go through the eviction process if she cannot find another place to stay.

Her housing voucher is for up to $528 a month, which must include water, and “places like that don’t grow on trees,” she said.

“Believe me, I’m looking, but if it’s between that and living in my truck, I’ll make them do the eviction process.”

She said she has been accepted into the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which retrains people 50 and over so they can find new jobs and become more self-sufficient, and is trying to find work.

Cabrera said Wilson’s threat to make them evict her is “the last straw.”

“Now she’s going to seek lawyers and drag this out as long as possible.

“She’s with HUD and we’ve worked with HUD and we’re trying very hard to make sure she doesn’t lose her housing voucher.

“We really try very hard to work with our tenants – my husband is a veteran – and once in a while we work with someone who is a veteran and borderline homeless, and we’ll try to get them into a place and work with social services and set up payments, so it’s not like we’re not accustomed to working with more-challenging cases, but she’s been so rude and hostile over the last couple years over little things – there’s been no respect and a lot of attitude.”

Cabrera said it feels like Wilson is trying to bully them, “threaten me with a civil action under the ADA, and as I mentioned, I’m a former prosecutor and she has no case.

“We didn’t even know she’s supposedly disabled, so how are we supposed to be discriminating against her?”

Wilson likewise believes the dispute probably cannot be resolved at this point but said she was not out of line in seeking to have a modest lawn and some landscaping and that it wasn’t costing as much as the Cabreras claim.

“I may have had a reversal in my fortunes and become disabled and forced to live on Section 8 [subsidized housing],” she said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t take pride in where I live.”

James Thune, a HUD housing inspector and advocate for the Southwest Center for Independent Living, said he agreed that Wilson’s letters been confrontational and insulting, but that the controversy had been ongoing and he has worked with her because she is disabled.

“I’m just someone who stepped into the situation and is trying to get this resolved,” Thune said, “but as far as it’s standing right now, Monica has to vacate. She’s got until Sept. 30 to find a new place within the fairmarket payment standard, which is not easy to do.

“This is a bad situation it’s come to with her – losing this voucher, if it comes to that, is like putting her homeless and if it goes that far, that’s what the possibility is.”

Thune said he’s been looking for alternative housing since the brouhaha started, but finding another place within the HUD limits has been nearly impossible.

Thune said he hasn’t been in direct contact with either of the Cabreras, although this may be his next step.

“I can talk to Calixto and Bonnie and say, ‘The water bill is being paid for and you shouldn’t be doing this,’ but they have sent a lengthy document about the water bill and that’s how they feel. I’m doing my best to advocate for her in this situation that there’s not a winning conclusion if she gets an eviction notice.”

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From September 2013.