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Proposed bylaw supports naturalization of lawns and native plants

Photo by Jessica Rose Powell, Grow Me Instead Guide for southern Ontario.

Council members will discuss supporting naturalization of lawns and prohibiting growth of several weeds as they examine a new grass and weed bylaw at their Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday.

Despite recommendations from the Environmental Advisory Committee and Natural Cover Working Group, staff is not recommending the municipality put ‘No Mow May’ into the bylaw due to conflicting science and a lack of studies particularly in Canada and Ontario, notes Albert Paschkowiak, Environmental Services and Sustainability Supervisor, in his report to council.

“Instead, the proposed bylaw focuses on supporting naturalization and using native plants that provide a richer, longer lasting, and more diverse source of food for pollinators,” Paschkowiak said.

Provisions have been included in the draft bylaw to limit noxious weeds, as well as impacts of naturalized areas to right of ways, sidewalks and traffic.

The proposed change to the current Property Standards bylaw is suggested to read “The owner or occupant of property shall cut and maintain turf grass and traditional lawns on yards and vacant lots at a height reasonable in consideration of the location and surroundings of the property”.

“Imposing a height limit of naturalized lawns was considered, but is not recommended,” his report states. “Such a limit would preclude the types of plants possible on naturalized lawns as many species are not tolerant to mowing. Similarly, some residents requested controls on the overall look of these lawns as being unkempt. As well, previous court rulings outlined in the report may prohibit the enforcement of bylaws that regulate aesthetic appeal.”

Staff have included an additional clause exempting lands used for agricultural purposes and zoned agricultural from regulation under the grass and weeds bylaw.

The bylaw would define local weeds prohibited as: Glossy buckthorn, Himalayan Balsam, Japanese knotweed and Phragmites.

Purple Loosestrife and Garlic Mustard have been removed from the list of local weeds given their widespread distribution, high costs related to eradication and undue financial hardship this may impose of property owners with infestations.

The issue began with the previous council seeking initiatives that support the County’s priority of adapting to climate change.

“Many municipalities have adopted naturalization policies, or are in the process of exploring the option,” he noted, referencing legal precedent cases where the Ontario Court of Justice recognized freedom of expression extends to environmental values and beliefs reflected in naturalized gardens.

Paschkowiak adds the authority to regulate lawn maintenance is granted in the Municipal Act stating a municipality may “require the owner or occupant of land to clean and clear the land, not including buildings, or to clear refuse or debris from the land” and with respect to public nuisances, including the spread of vermin.

The public was invited to comment between March 17 and April 4 and 157 people responded.

Of those, almost all indicated that protecting pollinators was either important, or very important.

Of the 157 respondents, 127 supported restricting invasive species on private property, 80 supported limiting the impace lawns can have on sidewalks and 120 supported limitations on obstructions to sightlines and traffic; 29 supported maintaining the 20cm restriction on turf grass and 15 selected other.

The most popular species they wanted included in the new bylaw were glossy buckthorn (100 supporting votes) and Garlic mustard (98 supporting votes), however all species noted had between 83 and 100 votes supporting regulation and 36 votes did not wish to have additional species restricted.

There is also a deputation planned at the meeting from Nina-Marie E. Lister, Professor, School of Urban + Regional Planning and Director, Ecological Design Lab and Aylise Cooke, Graduate Research Assistant.

In it, they state their work in the lab focuses on urban biodiversity, and in particular, on bylaws and ordinances that support and enhance biodiversity through lawn naturalization and healthy yard practices.

“Of the 14 municipalities’ updated and draft bylaws that were recently reviewed and advised through our lab, this bylaw is one of the better examples,” their deputation states. “For this we offer kudos to Prince Edward County. You may wish to know that we advised the City of Kingston to review PEC’s draft bylaw as a helpful example.”

They urge council to remove language “allowing” lawn naturalization as courts have already ruled it a right and to remove the requirement to remove grass clippings which provide benefits as natural mulch, including shade, water retention, carbon and nutrient value to the soil.

They suggest the prohibited plant list should be restricted to and aligned with the provincial Weed Control Act stating there is no evidence a bylaw enforcement officer would be able to correctly identify these plants or distinguish them from native or cultivated species and it’s unclear if or how the County will maintain the same standards on municipal properties which can be a significant source of weed seeds.

“If not using herbicides, it can take a lot of time, resources, and ongoing effort to eliminate many of the species on this list. For this reason, we urge the County to adopt an educational strategy instead. Education programs should be two-pronged: aimed both internally for staff and externally with community partners for the public at large.”

They also state the draft definitions of “naturalized areas” as “a reproducing population of native species” is problematic.

“We commend the County for supporting both “natural regeneration” and “deliberate plantings of native species”. However, it would be impractical and worrisome to exclude any non-native species from naturalization. We recommend against defining naturalization to mean exclusively native plants. A better course of action would be to define “naturalization” as “spontaneous and deliberately planted native species and selected cultivars” (so long as none of these are on the prohibited plants list).”

The public benefits of the bylaw, they state, are clear and many – as the climate crisis is bound up with biodiversity loss.

“We know that to address climate resilience, we must protect biodiversity and create habitats for other species. While public spaces in parks and protected areas are important, most of the lands here are in private ownership. Thus, the role of the private property owner is critical and we can, with good policies and supportive bylaws, support biodiversity on and across private land within our communities.

“Specifically, we can ground and amplify support for biodiversity (for nature) at home, in our yards and gardens. Research shows that climate anxiety is growing, and people often feel helpless.

“But hope lies in the garden, at home in our yards: PEC’s draft bylaw offers our community both hope and opportunity to do something tangible, something positive and healing that builds connections and supports biodiversity and climate resilience.”

UPDATE: Council has asked municipal staff to explore costs related to extending the bylaw to include County lands and to bring results before the 2024 budget deliberations.

Council also seeks language to work with the Environmental Advisory Committee regarding educational opportunities for the public.

The bylaw and proposed changes would go to council’s April 25 meeting for adoption.

Mow in May; garden thugs and easy ways to make a difference

The ‘Grow Me Instead’ brochure, put out by the Ontario Invasive Plant Council, outlines the most common invasive plants, recommending a better alternative to grow instead. Click here to see the brochure.

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