A Smiths Falls, Ont., couple say they’re pleased the town has rescinded an order to uproot their “naturalized” lawn, but fear the battle isn’t over yet.
Instead of a manicured lawn and garden, Beth and Craig Sinclair planted 150 trees and other native plant species in front of their bungalow. The couple, who moved to Smiths Falls from Seattle about a decade ago, said natural lawns like theirs are common in their former city.
We can restore so much of nature in our lawns.– Craig Sinclair
“I thought I should do something better with my lawn,” Craig Sinclair said.
“We’re trying to make a difference for ecology,” Beth Sinclair agreed.
Before planting the Sinclairs researched the benefits of naturalized lawns and informed the town of their plan. That didn’t stop numerous visits from bylaw officers, who told them their bird feeders were too close to the ground, among other things.
Last October, the couple noticed their yard was an item on the council agenda, accompanied by a 17-page report that detailed neighbours’ complaints and recommended they be required to tame their yard. Council agreed, and an order was issued.
Couple hired a lawyer
The couple enlisted lawyer David Donnelly to help. On Jan. 25, they appealed council’s decision to the town’s property standards committee, but lost on two of three of the items in dispute.
The Sinclairs then appealed to Ontario’s Superior Court, and earlier this month the town backed down and rescinded the original order.
Donnelly said similar cases have gone the homeowner’s way, establishing a precedent.
“People are allowed to grow natural gardens as part of their environmental ethic,” he said. “These complainants were using the bylaw officers as a kind of an instrument to enforce their own esthetic.”
The couple say they’ve received plenty of local support, and pointed out the stark contrast between the town’s stance and the City of Toronto’s, where gardens that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies are eligible for a grant of up to $5,000.
In an email, Kerry Costello, the town’s director of corporate services, said Smiths Falls is now in the process of reviewing its property standards bylaw and will be considering a new provision for naturalized yards.
A ‘very outdated idea’
But Beth Sinclair said the experience has nevertheless been upsetting.
“It’s very sad the way bylaw works, that one person can complain incessantly and get the response. And so much of the town’s resources being spent on this is really sad.”
Nina-Marie Lister, a professor at the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, said it’s a common source of conflict.
“There are many smaller municipalities in Ontario, and some larger ones, that continue to have vaguely worded and arbitrarily enforced municipal standards bylaws,” said Lister, currently a visiting professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University.
Lister and her students have developed a model bylaw that was used by the City of Toronto in revising its own rules governing landscape design on private property.
“It’s a little bit odd that we’re still adopting a kind of very old colonial mentality that the only thing for a yard is a monoculture or a single species of turf grass that it isn’t even native,” she said. “And it takes an enormous amount of water, energy inputs like fertilizers and sometimes pesticides to maintain this very outdated idea.”
A partial victory
The Sinclairs said it feels like only a partial victory.
“Until the bylaws change in all the 400 municipalities in Ontario, I don’t feel very satisfied,” Craig Sinclair said. “I want everybody in Ontario to not just have the right to do it, but for it to be encouraged. We can restore so much of nature in our lawns.”
Smith Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow said he regrets the conflict over the Sinclairs’ lawn but believes some good may come of it.
“I know this caused the Sinclairs a fair amount of grief, and it’s been a bit of a challenging environment for a lot of people through this,” Pankow said. “But the outcome is that the town will develop a naturalization bylaw.
“I would like to see a policy which is fairly liberal [while] respecting that it may not suit the taste of everybody, but recognizing the merits … for both for wildlife and for the natural environment.”
The town has posted a survey online. The revised bylaw is expected to come to council in June.