To Mow or to Grow? Local ordinances seem to limit your choice, but a sustainable natural yard is possible.

Few issues pit neighbor against neighbor more often, or more vehemently, than proper maintenance and care of their lawns. On one side, a manicured turf lawn is good for public health and neighborhood uniformity. On the other side, a natural yard cuts down on pollution, captures stormwater, offers wildlife habitat, and provides an expressive outlet for individual creativity. Around the early 20th century, many local governments sided with advocates of the uniformly mowed lawn by enacting “vegetation control statutes” or “weed ordinances” restricting the height of “weeds or similar vegetation.” Today, as the benefits of natural yards are popularized, outdated weed ordinances seem to limit a property owner’s choice to mow or to grow. The issue is so pervasive that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently weighed in on the issue with an opinion, written by Judge Richard Posner, addressing the constitutionality of the City of Chicago’s weed ordinance. With proper research, planning, and maintenance though, the natural yard proponent can minimize risk of violating these ordinances and in areas with enough support and resources, may even be able to update the ordinance.

Local laws imposing seemingly arbitrary height limitations and vague prohibitions on “weeds” can result in frustrated property owners who are just trying to do something positive for their families, their community, and the environment by cultivating a natural yard. The challenge with many weed ordinances is the underlying assumption that seemingly uncontrolled vegetation growth (regardless of plant type) results in risks to public health and safety. A typical local weed ordinance states that:

“It shall be unlawful for any person with an interest in real estate in the Borough to permit weeds and similar vegetation, not edible or planted for some useful or ornamental purpose, to grow or remain upon such premises so as to exceed a height of eight inches or to throw off any unpleasant or noxious odor or to conceal any filthy deposit or to create or produce pollen. Any such grass, weeds, or other vegetation is hereby declared to be a nuisance and detrimental to the health, safety, cleanliness and comfort of the inhabitants of the Borough.”

More often than not, the terms of the ordinance are left undefined, meaning that it is up to a code enforcement officer to answer questions such as: Is this plant a weed? How are these plants useful? Which are edible? Which are ornamental? However, this does not need to be the case. Many communities are now drafting local regulations that limit unmanaged and problematic vegetation while still allowing for natural landscapes that offer energy conservation, reduced labor costs, and environmental benefits. A few good examples are Green Bay, WI, Ferndale, MI, Cincinnati, OH, and Bellevue, WA.

Where more traditional weed ordinances are still in place, it is helpful to know that enforcement of weed ordinances generally begins with a visit to the alleged violator’s property by a local code enforcement officer, which is sometimes prompted by a complaint from a neighbor. If the enforcement officer observes a violation, such as “weeds” growing beyond the height specified by the local ordinance, the visit may be followed up with a citation and a summons. Penalties for violations are typically fines that may be as high as several hundred dollars. In some instances, failure to pay the fine subjects the violator to time in jail, automatically making weed ordinance violations a criminal offense.

In Pennsylvania, these cases are handled in a local Magisterial District Court, presided over by an elected Magistrate Judge. Upon receiving the summons you will have a limited time to notify the Court that you will plead guilty or not guilty to the allegations and either pay the imposed fine or provide the Court with collateral (often $50) to assure your appearance at trial. Although defendants can represent themselves before the Magistrate Judge, it is highly advisable to contact an attorney as early as possible. If the Magistrate Judge rules against you, there is an opportunity to essentially have the case re-heard without a jury at the county Court of Common Pleas.

Understandably, the possibility of fines and jail-time may make you hesitate before tearing up your sod to plant switch grass, black-eyed susans, and wild bergamot in the front lawn. However, even where local laws seem prohibitive, there is a lot you can do to ensure that your natural yard is in compliance. Here are a few best practices to consider:

PLANNING STAGE:   Identify the local ordinances that apply to your property and consider talking with an attorney about ways to limit your risk. Talk to your neighbors and tell them your plans, educate them about the benefits of a natural yard, and share your edible, ornamental, or otherwise useful plants.

PLANTING STAGE:    Do your homework on native plant identification, planting, and maintenance. Consider hiring a landscaping professional to design and install your natural yard. Maintain a well-defined border around your natural landscaping (even if the border surrounds your entire yard), trim vegetation where necessary to not interfere with pedestrian and automobile line of sight, and keep invasive plant species at bay with regular maintenance.

FINAL STAGE:      If your local ordinance is prohibitive, talk to an attorney or local legislators about changing the ordinance to be more accommodating of natural yards. Lastly, if you do receive a citation, it is a good idea to immediately reach out to an attorney for assistance.

For additional guidance on natural landscaping, I would suggest looking into the National Wildlife Federation’s program for designating yards as Certified Wildlife Habitat, the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences’ guide for Neighborly Natural Landscaping: Creating Natural Environments in Residential Areas, or one of the many resources provided by Wild Ones.  

By Ryan Hamilton.