When ‘Weed Laws’ Make Homeowners Outlaws

Landscaping with native plants is a growing trend, but in some places so are foreclosures for failing to follow rules that demand a manicured yard

12-01-2004 // Heidi Ridgley

JEFF SEIGRIST and his wife, Carolyn Haase, thought they’d found their own piece of paradise when they moved into a Sacramento, California, subdivision. Long concerned about environmental issues, the couple were delighted to find a homeowners’ association that required buyers to agree to planting only native plants in their yards.

“We built our home with the intention of being subservient to nature, and native plants were a big part of our plan,” says Seigrist, who like other natural landscapers across the country, has learned that native plants not only attract wildlife, but also conserve water and require no pesticides.

To blend their home into the land as much as possible, the couple used earth tones to paint their house—made with sustainably harvested lumber and recyclable metal—and surrounded it with wildflowers, trees, grasses and shrubs indigenous to California. “In fact, when we bought the property we were told we couldn’t even remove the poison oak,” he says. “We thought, ‘That’s great. This is exactly what we’re looking for.’”

But as time passed and more people bought lots, the community started to change. Native landscaping rankled the new neighbors, who had started cutting down trees, putting up fences and “building McMansions—eyesores that you can see from miles away when you’re on the lake,” says Seigrist. The couple soon found themselves fined by the association for not maintaining their “landscape in a reasonable manner to enhance the lot’s appearance.”

“What this vague language actually turned out to mean was that the board wanted us to mow down our wildflowers, plant a lawn and use eastern or European plants,” says Seigrist. “These sorts of landscapes are harmful to the environment and waste scarce water, which is one reason we won’t comply with the restrictions.” Threatened with foreclosure—after the association put a lien on their house for unpaid fines—and facing a legal fight with the homeowners’ association that could cost more than $100,000, the couple decided to get out of Dodge—or in this case, Loomis. “The county board of supervisors was in my court,” says Seigrist. “But they didn’t know what to do.”

Nationwide, homeowners’ associations appear to be one of the last holdouts in the movement toward native landscaping. Ten to 20 years ago, towns and cities often enforced so-called “weed ordinances” that required homeowners to mow their lawns to a prescribed height and banned certain plants—even those native to the region. “That’s not usually the case anymore,” says Bret Rappaport, a Chicago attorney who has defended natural landscapers in court and is a board member of Wild Ones, a nonprofit group that advocates gardening with natives. “Pick up any gardening magazine and nearly every issue has at least one story on landscaping with native plants. Ten years ago that wasn’t common, but today it’s an acceptable trend.” Many federal and corporate office buildings also now make native landscaping a priority.

Wild Ones, however, still gets several calls a month from people, like Seigrist and Haase, who live in communities subject to the rules of homeowners’ associations. “In this sort of environment, a homeowner doesn’t have much recourse because there’s no way to do something outside the rules,” says Rappaport. “People buy into a planned community knowing that their neighbor will never have a purple mailbox—but then that means you can’t have one either. It’s something to think about before you buy.”

He says naturalistic plantings—which tend to look more overgrown and wild—can still vex neighbors in cities and suburbs and sometimes can lead to complaints or even citations. But once native landscapers explain what they are doing and why, the matter usually doesn’t reach litigation. “The neighbors might not like it, and they might find it quirky and unusual, but they usually learn to live with it,” says Rappaport.

That’s what happened recently to Carl and Maureen Kern in Lapeer, Michigan, a township near Flint that the couple describe as behind the times when it comes to native landscaping. When the Kerns moved into their house in 1991, their front yard consisted of sparse grass, too much sand, too little topsoil and one tiny tree. Today, this work in progress is flourishing with native white pine, blue spruce, yucca, milkweed, goldenrod, St. John’s wort and more. Along the way the couple have attracted egg-laying turtles, a nesting red-tailed hawk, bluebirds, great blue herons, downy woodpeckers—and three tickets from the township for violating the blight ordinance.

“We plant what we think will benefit animals and bring them to our yard,” says Maureen. “But what we needed to fight our case was ‘official’ recognition that we were not totally crazy.” The couple turned to NWF for advice and support—and ended up certifying their property as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat site last February. In July the judge ruled in their favor, dismissing the tickets and allowing the Kerns to grow in peace. Now, they are working to get the town’s weed ordinance rewritten to prevent other natural landscapers from going through the same ordeal.

One of the best ways to do this, says David Mizejewski, manager of NWF’s backyard habitat program, is to convince neighbors that native landscaping is not only beautiful but beneficial. “Share your passion and enthusiasm for wildlife and native plants by showing your neighbors a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant or invite them over to watch a mother bird feeding her nestlings in the dense vegetation,” he says. “They’ll begin to see the importance and beauty of this kind of landscape. But be patient—educating people and changing their attititudes can take time.”

Time is what Seigrist and Haase no longer have. The couple’s presentations to convince association board members and neighbors have failed. “Their case is unfortunate,” says Rappaport. “They’re passionate environmentalists who fought it as far as they could. In the end, I told them to move.”

And move they will. At this writing, the couple were facing fines of $5,000 and a lien on their house. “Now it’s become a race to see if we can sell the house before the board can foreclose on it. We have no idea what we’ll do next—probably live in an apartment for a year or two until we can find something else and start over.”

Heidi Ridgley is associate editor of this magazine.

Tips for Homeowners

Going Native Without Making the Neighbors Restless

To avoid conflicts with neighbors who might not appreciate the natural look of your landscape, NWF’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program Manager David Mizejewski suggests:

  • Create a mulched or mown border to frame your natural landscaping
     
  • Add benches, paths, sculptures or lanterns to “humanize” your yard and make it less wild.
     
  • Start small and gradually expand naturalistic plantings so it’s less of a shock to your neighbors.
     
  • Choose native plants that feed and shelter wildlife and that also have ornamental qualities such as flowers, colorful fruits or interesting foliage or bark.
     
  • Talk to neighbors about your plans before you start.
     
  • Check local ordinances or homeowners’ association bylaws to make sure your landscape plan isn’t going to be in violation. If it is, proactively push to change habitat-unfriendly laws.
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