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A Source Book on Natural Landscaping for Public Officials
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL ROLES FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT?
The officials of local governments, including cities and villages, counties, park districts, conservation and forest preserve districts, and sanitary and school districts can promote and benefit from the use of natural landscaping.
Local officials can play an important role in the encouragement of natural landscaping throughout northeastern Illinois by using such practices on public lands, promoting natural landscaping through public policy, sponsoring demonstration projects and educating the public on the benefits of natural landscaping.
WHAT ARE THE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP?
Landscape public properties "naturally"
Provide leadership by increasing the use of natural landscaping on public properties, including streetscapes:
- Make someone on staff responsible for landscape issues and provide training opportunities relating to natural landscaping.
- Develop a multi-year program for retrofitting natural landscaping on existing sites.
- Use in-house landscape staff or outside professionals to develop plans for new and existing sites.
- Develop policies and specifications for new site planning to encourage the use of natural landscaping.
- Utilize natural landscaping, especially to remedy situations where traditional turf landscaping is causing difficulties (e.g., eroding gullies or stream channels).
Develop a local policy and a legal framework
Adopt or modify local codes and ordinances in order to facilitate the use of natural landscaping on private property. Modify municipal procedures (e.g., planning, public works, public safety, recreation) to accommodate natural landscaping:
- Review and amend or replace the local weed ordinance so that it encourages natural landscaping.
- Adopt a natural landscape ordinance.
- Amend subdivision regulations and other ordinances that govern landscaping of development sites in order to accommodate and encourage natural landscaping. In particular, amend drainage code language that mandates storm sewers to the exclusion of vegetated swales and filter strips.
- Develop and adopt fire department procedures for permitting and overseeing prescribed burns of natural areas; inform the public of these requirements.
- Include natural landscaping goals and policies in comprehensive plans.
- Designate greenways in comprehensive plans, land use plans and park plans.
Promote demonstration projects
Work with school districts, park districts, forest preserve and conservation districts, state and federal agencies, chambers of commerce, residents and environmental groups to support demonstration projects and other educational efforts that will encourage the use of natural landscaping:
- Appoint a public/private task force or commission to develop recommendations for furthering higher standards of landscaping within the community.
- Promote lectures, slide shows, field trips, workshops, exhibits and other special events that help to educate all groups of citizens about natural landscaping.
- Work with neighborhood groups to develop guidelines that will promote distinctive landscapes within selected neighborhoods.
Provide educational materials and information
Inform the general public of the methods and benefits of natural landscaping:
- Provide informative materials on natural landscaping (including plant lists, answers to often asked questions, and sources of other important information); local libraries and park districts are obvious providers of such information.
- Include articles on natural landscaping in the community newsletter.
- Conduct a public relations program in conjunction with natural landscaping on public property; this could involve local radio and TV stations, as well as the print media.
WHAT ARE THE REGULATORY ISSUES?
Due to their competitive nature, "noxious" and "exotic" weeds can be a problem with respect to preserving and restoring native plants. The State of Illinois has established policy with respect to both categories of weeds.
Illinois Noxious Weed Law:
The Illinois Noxious Weed Law (505 ILCS 100/1) is intended to control weeds that are a problem to agriculture, and enforcement of the law is assigned to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. The list of noxious weeds is determined by Director of the Department of Agriculture, the Dean of the College of Agriculture of the University of Illinois, and the Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Illinois.
The list of official noxious weeds in Illinois includes:
- Canada thistle
- common ragweed
- giant ragweed
- musk thistle
- perennial members of the sorghum genus
- perennial sow thistle
County boards are defined as the "control authorities" for weed control operating under rules established by the Department of Agriculture. Land owners are responsible for controlling noxious weeds on their property. The control authority can issue notices for such control in order to require compliance. Local officials could work with county government and the Illinois Department of Agriculture in identifying and eradicating infestations of noxious weeds. Volunteer stewards working with conservation organizations often have experience in the techniques for removing noxious weeds.
Illinois Exotic Weed Act:
Another law dealing with weeds is the Illinois Exotic Weed Act (525 ILCS 10). This Act tries to avoid spreading non-native invasive plants that degrade natural plant communities, reduce the value of fish and wildlife habitat, or threaten Illinois endangered or threatened species. The Act prohibits the buying, selling, distributing, or planting of seeds or plants of designated exotic weeds.
Designated exotic weeds are:
- Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)
- Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)
- Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)
A site plan for natural landscaping may necessitate the removal of both noxious and exotic weeds.
Municipal Weed Ordinances:
Municipal weed laws have sometimes become the "lightning rod" for controversy associated with natural landscaping. Communities adopt weed laws in order to prevent unsightliness from poor property maintenance and to prevent hazards from vermin and fire, which were believed to be caused by unkempt vegetation. The drafting of such laws usually occurred prior to or without knowledge of natural plant communities. Weed laws, if not carefully worded, can equate natural landscaping with unmanaged landscapes. In fact, natural landscaping is managed and does not pose the hazards that weed laws are intended to address.
Community and neighborhood sentiment regarding aesthetics and appearance has sometimes led citizens to look to weed laws as a way of opposing natural landscaping. Courts have determined that concerns about vermin, fire hazards, mosquitoes, and allergies are unfounded. A well-crafted ordinance, coupled with public education illustrating the benefits of natural landscaping, should be adequate to provide a local framework to support natural landscaping.
Municipalities have responded to the natural landscaping movement and weed laws in various ways.
Madison, Wisconsin was among the first communities to encourage natural landscaping by taking a permitting approach. The ordinance requires homeowners to file an application for natural landscaping and obtain approval from a majority of neighbors.
Improved Weed Laws:
More recently enacted weed laws allow natural landscaping "by right" without case by case neighbor or city permission. There are three main approaches to crafting or modifying a weed law:
- Require a setback.
- Include broadly worded exceptions for natural landscaping.
- Encourage natural landscaping.
1. Require A Setback
Weed laws have traditionally regulated height. For example, weeds exceeding 10 inches in height may not be permitted. The newer and more sophisticated weed laws address the appearance issue by requiring that a setback or buffer strip on the periphery of the property be maintained at a maximum height (such as 12 inches). Vegetation behind the setback and within the yard is unregulated except for control of listed noxious weeds.
Setback distances depend on the type of community and size of the typical lot. Communities with homes on large lots could have as much as a twenty-foot setback, while in towns with smaller lots, a two- or three-foot setback would be more suitable.
Setback laws have several advantages and represent a workable compromise between the sometimes diverse interests of the village, natural landscapers and neighbors. Primarily, setback ordinances allow for the unregulated growing of vegetation on a majority of the lot. Like a frame around an abstract painting, the setback around the perimeter of a natural area creates a tended look that satisfies neighbor and village concerns of conformity and aesthetics. The yard takes on its intended look. A setback also solves the practical problems caused by large plants and grasses lopping over into neighbor yards or across sidewalks. The setback ordinances are also easy to understand and enforce. Both the village and the natural landscaper benefit from a clear and simple law. Neighbor complaints are generally satisfied by such compromise and living in a community makes compromise essential.
A reasonable exception to setback requirements is where adjacent landowners mutually agree to continuous natural landscaping across adjacent property lines.
2. Include Broadly Worded Exceptions in the Weed Ordinance for Beneficial Landscapes
These exceptions may include the following:
Native plantings -- the use of native plant species for aesthetic and/or wildlife reasons
Wildlife plantings -- the use of native and/or introduced plant species to attract and aid wildlife
Erosion control -- to offset and control any soil loss problems both occurring and predicted
Soil fertility building -- the enrichment and eventual stabilization of soil fertility through the use of various plant species
Governmental programs -- any federal, state or local programs which require the unimpaired growth of plants during a majority or all of the growing season
Educational programs -- any areas designated for educational studies
Cultivation -- any plant species or group of plant species native or introduced and grown for consumption, pleasure or business reasons
Biological control -- the planting of a particular plant species or group of species which will effectively out-.compete and replace a noxious or troublesome weed species without additional soil disturbance of the site
Parks and open space -- any and all public parks and open space lands whether under the jurisdiction of federal, state, or local agencies including private conservation/preservation organizations
Wooded areas -- all areas that are predominantly wooded
3. Encourage Natural Landscaping
This approach promotes the use of natural landscaping in its broadest sense.
Long Grove, Illinois, is a good example of a community that embodies this policy. Long Grove has no law regulating vegetation height. The village requires developers to include scenic easements, at least one hundred feet deep and planted with native plants, wildflowers and grasses between the homes and major streets in their subdivisions. Large portions of the town are designated natural areas as determined by a scientific ecological survey. Long Grove employs a naturalist to advise developers and homeowners on how to cultivate and maintain natural landscapes. Long Grove sells native plants and seed mixes to residents and has a committee that reviews prairie restoration projects within the village.
Fort Collins, Colorado employs a full time wildlife biologist and has a ten acre nature preserve in the heart of downtown on land that used to be a formal park. There is a city program to identify and certify homeowner's backyard wildlife habitats. To receive this certification, homeowners must let nature reclaim their non-native lawns. Hundred of citizens participate in the program
There are many possible variations that can be developed to respond to local conditions. A community may want to try a pilot program directed within a selected neighborhood, pertaining to particular land uses such as campus-style uses, or targeted towards less visible locations on sites. See the Appendix for additional information and sample ordinance language.
(This section draws heavily from the John Marshall Law Review, Volume 26, Number 4, Summer 1993, written by Bret Rappaport.)