A Smiths Falls, Ont., couple say they are happy the city has rescinded their order to mow their “natural” lawn, but fear the fight isn’t over yet.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 from Seattle to Smiths Falls about a decade ago, said natural lawns like theirs are common in their former city.
We can restore so much nature to our lawn.— Craig Sinclair
“I thought I should do something better with my lawn,” said Craig Sinclair.
“We’re trying to make a difference to ecology,” agreed Beth Sinclair.
Sinclair researched the benefits of natural lawns before planting and informed the city of his plan. This did not stop several visits from sub-officers, who told them that their bird feeders were, among other things, too close to the ground.
Last October, the couple noticed that their yard was an item on the council’s agenda, with a 17-page report that detailed neighbors’ complaints and recommended that they need to tame their yard. The council agreed, and an order was issued.
couple hired a lawyer
The couple hired attorney David Donnelly to help. On 25 January, he appealed the council’s decision to the city’s Property Standards Committee, but lost on two of the three items in the dispute.
The Sinclairs then appealed to Ontario’s Superior Court, and earlier this month the city backtracked and struck down the original order.
Donnelly said similar cases have gone the homeowner’s way, setting a precedent.
“People are allowed to develop natural parks as part of their environmental ethics,” he said. “These complainants were using the subpoenas as a tool to enforce their own aesthetic.”
The couple say they have benefited greatly from local support, and point to the stark contrast between the city’s approach and the city of Toronto, where gardens that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies are eligible for grants of up to $5,000. Huh.
In an email, Kerry Costello, the city’s director of corporate services, said Smiths Falls is now in the process of reviewing its property standards bylaw and will consider a new provision for a natural yard.
A ‘very old idea’
But Beth Sinclair said the experience has been troubling nonetheless.
“It’s very sad that the way the law works, one person can constantly complain and get feedback. And such a huge amount of city resources being spent on this is really sad.”
This is a common source of conflict, said Nina-Marie Lister, a professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University.
“There are many smaller municipalities in Ontario, and some larger municipalities, 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 his students developed a model bylaw that was used by the City of Toronto to revise its own rules governing landscape design on private property.
“It’s a little strange that we’re still adopting a very old colonial mindset that the only thing worth a yard is a monoculture or one species of turf grass that it’s not even native.” “And maintaining this very old idea requires enormous amounts of water, energy inputs such as fertilizers and sometimes pesticides.”
Sinclairs said it feels like only a partial victory.
“I don’t feel very satisfied until the bylaws change in all 400 municipalities in Ontario,” said Craig Sinclair. “I want everyone in Ontario to not only have the right to do it, but be encouraged to do so. We can restore so much of nature to our lawns.”
Smith Falls Mayor Shawn Panko said he regretted the conflict on the Sinclairs’ lawn, but believed something good could come of it.
“I know this has hurt the Sinclairs, and it’s been a challenging environment for a lot of people going through this,” Panko said. “But the result is that the city will develop a naturalization bylaw.
“I would like to see a policy that is liberal enough [while] Respecting that it may not suit everyone’s tastes, but recognizing the qualities … for both wildlife and the natural environment.”
The city has posted a survey online. The amended bylaws are expected to come to the council in June.