The Rising Cost of Landscape Maintenance

Mike Davison, 2021

Landscape maintenance costs are constantly increasing. (43% of the 2021 Serrano Park HOA budget is landscape costs.) There are several reasons for these increases. In the Serrano Park HOA, this can result in dwindling reserve funds and increases in dues. There are some things we can do to slow this increase, but first lets look at the causes.

Labor Costs – All aspects of landscape maintenance is heavily labor intensive and the minimum wage rates heavily influence maintenance rates in landscaping as well as other accounting categories.

Jan, 2017$10.50/hr
Jan, 2018$11.00/hr
Jan, 2019$12.00/hr
Jan, 2020$13.00/hr
Jan, 2021$14.00/hr
Jan, 2022$15.00/hr
California Minimum Wage, 26 or more employees

By 2022, the minimum wage will have increased by 45% within 5 years. Naturally, other hourly rates are affected as well. Increases in health care and liability insurance also adds to the increasing costs of maintenance.

Dealing with labor increases – There isn’t much that can be done to reduce the rates of labor. Rate increases such as these are passed to the customer. It is sometimes possible to reduce the amount of labor needed, especially higher cost labor such as irrigation technician repair of sprinklers by converting to the low maintenance cost of drip irrigation.

Management costs associated with a contract are usually hidden in the labor overhead costs. Sometimes the labor costs can be reduced by reducing the management time needed to service the customer’s needs. This can be done by keeping meetings short and reducing frivolous quotes. (Quotes are not free. They are created at manager rates and hidden in the costs of the approved projects. Gaining a reputation for frivolous quote requests, results in higher bids or no bids at all. A better approach is to obtain serious quotes from the most appropriate vendor for that particular job. An experienced committee or management company, can easily handle such things and check itemized quotes for fair pricing without the need for alternate bids.) Meetings can be shortened by being prepared and to take care of the simpler issues and details with emails, messages, and phone calls.

Tree Trimming – This maintenance category is also heavily driven by labor costs and minimum wage increases, and such, but the costs greatly increase as the tree grows. Trees taller than 15′ require workers trained in tree climbing and increased insurance. Trees taller yet, require lifts, more training, and even more insurance. We have trees in Serrano Park in excess of 130′ tall requiring specialized equipment to get that high. As our trees grow, so does the maintenance costs.

Eucalyptus trees in rural forests grow in packed groves. The crown growth remains small and adjacent trees support each other and block the wind. The reduced crown size causes slower, stronger growth. These same trees grown in an urban environment are usually not grown packed together. The crowns get large quickly and the tree grows fast and weaker than its rural relative. They must be pruned every few years to keep the tree healthy and able to withstand the Santa Ana winds. It is especially important to keep up the maintenance of trees near property lines, streets, and paths. Failure to keep up with this results in increased risk of large branches breaking or even the tree toppling.

Dealing with tree maintenance costs – The obvious solution to reducing costs is to remove large trees and programs to systematically remove our largest trees are usually proposed by tree maintenance contractors. However, maintaining trees is not just about maintenance costs, but about maintaining their community value. The value of an urban forest affects the property values of the homeowners in an HOA. The goal of urban forest management is to maintain a sustainable forest and this influences the decisions on the work to be done, balancing costs against community value.

Attention to proper tree structure while a tree is young, can greatly impact the beauty, health, and maintenance costs of the tree as it grows. In many cases, attention to details in planting and growing the tree, can result in adult trees that require no or very little maintenance. Some trees do better when planted close together such as eucalyptus trees and pines. Most species require far more maintenance later in life when planted near other trees such as the carrotwoods at the Pool 2 entrance. An intelligent pruning and maintenance plan can extend the tree life, health, beauty, and reduce costs.

All of these approaches to improving the forest value while controlling maintenance costs, require a long-term sustainable management plan with vigilant oversight.

Here is a good talk on this subject by the highly respected urban forester for Santa Monica

This responsibility cannot be contracted out to short-term contracted vendors with no incentive to maintain long-term goals. It must be managed intelligently by people with a stake in the forest value and urban forestry techniques in place. This is nearly impossible to do in an HOA with a volunteer run committee and BOD members changing constantly. The Serrano Park Landscape Committee has been attempting and making great progress in putting such a plan in place that had a chance of accomplishing this if it maintained the support of the BOD. The plan is starting to work but has a long way to go before it is sustainable.

Water Costs – (Water utilities costs make up 9% of the Serrano Park HOA budget) – We have all seen the quickly increasing costs for water.

YearLow VolumeBase Rate
Aug, 2018$1.40/CCF$1.89/CCF
Aug, 2019$1.47/CCF$2.00/CCF
Aug, 2020 (increase delayed)$1.54/CCF$2.12/CCF
4.4%/Yr increase8.2%/Yr increase
IRWD Rates

As can be easily seen, the cost increases favor low water use. This is because California is running out of water sources and we need to change our ways to conserve water. All new construction requires that large green areas to be on reclaimed water, which is still in abundance. Serrano Park was built before water use became so limited. Here, we have 3 water meters fed with reclaimed or untreated water. We have 13 meters fed with the same water you have in your homes and at similar costs. All of these 13 irrigation zones consistently exceed the Low Volume rate resulting in roughly half of our irrigation water is charged at the much higher and faster increasing Base Rate.

California, Orange County, and Lake Forest, are all pushing for communities to be more environmentally responsible, approving high cost increases for those that do not change reduce water consumption and incentives to promote modernizing landscape and irrigation systems. Lake Forest has this in their Master Plan so that building new communities can be justified. We can expect on-going cost increases as well as stricter water use during a drought period as water again, gets scarce.

These cost increases do not seem like much compared to the total budget, but not being able to water our trees properly during a drought extracts a large toll.

Dealing with water cost increases – Water costs can be greatly reduced by converting landscape from turf and sprinklers to low water use plants and drip irrigation. Turf requires a lot more water than other landscape, and drip irrigation both reduces water usage and maintenance costs. Currently, drip repair can be done by the maintenance crew while on site for a $0 cost, while sprinkler repair must be done by an irrigation specialist at $55/hr cost. (This refers to high quality industrial drip installations. See our Best Practices document for Drip Irrigation.)

During drought periods, it is very likely that watering turf will be highly penalized or banned altogether. Getting tree irrigation on drip separates the tree watering zones from turf, so that we can protect our trees during drought periods.

All embankment irrigation should be converted from sprinklers to drip irrigation. This almost eliminates wasted water run-off and greatly slows erosion, plus it can deep water trees and brush far more efficiently. The only down-side to changing to drip is the up front cost is much higher than sprinklers.

There are currently incentives and rebates for converting from turf to low water use plants and for converting from sprinklers to drip irrigation. These incentive periods are from July 1 through June 30. The funds are available on a first-come basis, require pre-approval, and the funds are guaranteed for 60 days and a final inspection for compliance to the incentive requirements. These incentives change from year to year, usually reducing the rebate amount and what areas are eligible. Because of the COVID costs to the state and to the utility companies, a drop in incentatives is expected on July 1 but next years rates have not been announced yet.

Current rate for turf replacement for potable water irrigated landscape is $2.00/sq-ft, 50,000 sq-ft maximum per year. (about 1 acre) Reclaimed water irrigated areas no longer qualify. (In the past, all areas qualified for a rate of $3.00/sp-ft)

Current rate for sprinkler replacement for all landscape is $0.70/sq-ft, 50,000 sq-ft maximum per year (commercial). (about 1 acre). (All surrounding areas are currently at $0.50/sq-ft)

Because the Serrano Park HOA uses so much water, we also qualify for special funding and incentives such as 10-year rebate programs for large water reduction projects. These projects are much more difficult to apply for and manage, but the Landscape Committee has been actively working on this. We planned to apply for these at the same time as the Abeto project.