California has recently adopted new state-wide ordinances limiting the size of lawns. As of December 1, 2015, lawn cannot occupy more than 25% of the landscaped area of a property.
This rule takes effect immediately for all newly-developed properties. Existing homes and businesses will be required to come into compliance if they undertake major renovations of their current landscaping.
The primary purpose of the law is to reduce water usage. The new limits on lawns are expected to save 20% of the water usage of a new home, or 35% of a commercial property’s water use.
The new ordinances also limit turf grass on street medians and terraces, and require lawns on commercial properties to be intended to serve some functional purpose, such as recreation or public assembly.
Many California property owners got rid of their lawns even while having one was still legal. Last summer, the state stopped offering cash incentives for lawn removal, after emptying its $340 million fund earmarked for that purpose.
Wisconsin has just released a State Pollinator Protection Plan. The full document can be found here.
The goals of the plan are to increase public understanding of issues facing pollinators, and encourage voluntary actions to help pollinators. The plan will not create any new regulations.
“Urban flower gardens often harbor diverse pollinator communities, but in areas dominated by skyscrapers or grass lawns pollinator diversity tends to be low,” the plan explains, in its opening section. The second section of the plan is divided into four parts, each describing what a specific group of people can do to help pollinators.
One of these sections, “Best Management Practices For Improving Pollinator Habitat in Gardens & Lawns” is directed towards homeowners. It is just a few pages long and can be read on its own. It begins on page 14 of the PDF linked above. The section suggests landscaping with a diversity of native plants that are suited to the site conditions. It also encourages homeowners to “leave things a little messy” – bare soil, leaf litter, and brush piles are all important habitat elements for pollinators.
The plan is currently in a public comment period. Its official website lists the following instructions for submitting comments:
Email comments by Friday, Feb. 19, to DATCPAgriculture@wisconsin.gov. Written comments may be mailed to: DATCP, ATTN Pollinator Protection Plan, PO Box 8911, Madison, WI 53708-8911. They must be received by Feb. 19.
The movement towards natural yards is gaining steam in Madison. It’s already a popular practice, as was discovered in a survey conducted by an east-side neighborhood association. This survey, which reviewed the front yards of about 100 homes, found that 71% of the homes were violating city ordinances. The yards contained flowers near the sidewalk or shrubs along the driveway, both of which are forbidden on the grounds that they could block visibility and present hazards to motorists.
Due to changing public attitudes towards residential landscaping practices, and to the city’s new pollinator protection initiative, the local zoning board is currently revising the existing yard-related ordinances. The new wording is likely to make it more clear that the purpose of the ordinances is to prevent neglect of property, not to stop homeowners from gardening in an environmentally-friendly way.
Madison’s Committee on the Environment is working on the pollinator protection plan and the ordinance changes. Their next meeting is Monday, October 19, at 4:30 PM, in room 108 of the City-County Building.
Madison city ordinances seek to prevent neglect of homes and yards. So long as a property is being appropriately taken care of, however, a wide variety of landscaping choices are legal.
-Conventional lawns of short grass are legal and are still common in the city. In some parts of the United States, lawns are not legal, mostly due to the unsustainable amount of water they require in areas prone to drought conditions.
-Tall grass is legal, so long as the property owner follows the process to notify the city that they have a natural yard.
-Garden beds containing flowers or vegetables are legal.
-It’s legal to have a yard containing many trees, with leaf litter covering the ground underneath them. Wooded lots are generally considered to be one of the most valuable types of real estate.
-It’s legal to fill a yard with hundreds of pink plastic flamingoes, which are the official city bird.
–Large metal sculptures are also a legal addition to a Madison yard.
Most if not all of these choices are in actual use in Madison, bringing a wonderful diversity to our city.
However, the city does not make it easy to find out what rules a homeowner must follow in order to have a natural yard legally. The booklet containing this information can only be found in the historical records library.
Here are a few excerpts from Madison’s official publication:
“Once prairie plantings are established, they require no herbicides, fertilizer, water, dethatching, aerifying, leaf removal or mowing. Prairie Restorations Inc. of Wayzata, Minnesota calculated that prairie maintenance was one seventh of the cost of lawn maintenance.”
“Comparative studies have shown that there is more than twice as much runoff of rainfall off of turf grass as there is from woodland or prairie vegetation. Extensive use of natural vegetation could have a profound positive effect on the water quality of our lakes.”
“Will tall grass attract rats? – Rats are attracted by extreme concentrations of food such as grain elevators and garbage. Whether tall grass is present or not is independent of the presence of rats.”
“What about mosquitoes and other insects? – Naturalized landscapes without standing water will not breed mosquitoes. At least ten days of standing water are necessary for this. People who have landscaped their homesites naturally have no more insect pests in their yards than the more traditionally landscaped homes of friends throughout the city.”
“Will a naturalized landscape lower my property values? – In a recent court case, a claim to this effect was not allowed as evidence because of its hearsay nature. This was in light of the fact that all property (traditionally and naturally landscaped) had increased in value. Because of many factors in house buying, it is difficult to prove the effect of landscaping on the total value. In Madison, the increased existence of and buyers’ awareness of naturalized landscapes has proved to be an advertising point for at least some houses.”