Long leaves of grass barely legal in Madison

By Janette Rosenbaum — The City of Madison is changing its ordinances regarding what kinds of plantings residents can have in their yards.

The ordinance updates follow last November’s adoption of the Pollinator Protection Plan. The plan—which came alongside a wave of similar plans at the municipal, state, and federal levels—states that pollinators are in decline, that this is a problem, and that Madison is resolved to do something about it.

During the drafting phase, the writers of the plan—including city staff and former alders—reviewed the effects of current city practices on pollinators. Many were deemed to be harmful, including use of neonicotinoid pesticides on public land, and zoning ordinances that make it difficult for property owners to have pollinator-friendly yards.

After the adoption of the plan, a workgroup was convened to begin implementation. Their first task was to prioritize the plan’s recommendations for addressing the practices identified as detrimental to pollinators. One recommendation that emerged as a high priority was revising the ordinances that restrict pollinator habitat on private property.

Those restrictions date back to the 1970s. At that time, every city in America banned tall grass in private yards, primarily for aesthetic reasons. In 1976, Madison suggested reversing its ban, in recognition of the fact that tall grass is the dominant native vegetation of southern Wisconsin, and thus it is an appropriate type of planting for urban settings.

That proposal failed, due to concerns raised by those who believed that tall grass would attract rats, encourage mosquitoes, and negatively impact property values. The proponents of tall grass did not give up, however, and in 1978 a compromise was reached: tall grass would be permitted on private property, as long as the homeowner applied for and received a “natural lawn permit”, certifying that their tall grass was part of an environmentally-conscious landscaping effort, and not the result of neglect.

Letting it grow without permits

This 1978 version of the ordinance is still in effect on Madison. Only about three dozen households have obtained permits, though clearly many more have tall grass. Most of these appear to be legitimate—if not fully legal—“natural landscapes”, the term now being used in place of “natural lawns”.

However, George Hank, the head of the Department of Building Inspection—the city agency responsible for enforcing these ordinances—says his staff regularly receive complaints about neighbors who don’t mow their grass. Complainants say the result is unsightly, or that it is responsible for their rodent problems.

Members of the Madison chapter of The Wild Ones, a national nonprofit advocating for native plants in yards, were only aware of one case of a genuinely neglected yard in the city. On the other hand, they can point to several examples of property owners who work hard to establish a natural landscape, are unable to obtain a permit—due to the overly-complex nature of the process—and who end up being prosecuted under false charges of neglect.

As for the claims that tall grass—whatever the intention of the property owner—causes rodent problems, Hank acknowledged at the November 21 Committee on the Environment meeting that he knows these allegations are not true. In fact, Madison has known all along that the dangers supposedly associated with tall grass aren’t real. A reflection on the 1970s ordinance debate, written in 1985, explains that neither rats nor mosquitoes are interested in tall grass, nor is there any evidence that tall grass hurts property values.

In fact, a 1976 court case in New Berlin, a suburb of Milwaukee, turned on the inaccuracy of claims about the harms associated with tall grass. In that case, a wildlife biologist was charged with property neglect after establishing a natural landscape in his yard. At the trial, he systematically showed that all of the city’s claims about how his yard constituted a public hazard were factually baseless. The judge agreed, and struck down the ordinance, ruling it counterproductive and unconstitutional.

Pollinators need tall grass

Madison’s similar ordinance, still on the books, is widely recognized as being counterproductive to the Pollinator Protection Plan. Some have argued that a ban on tall grass isn’t counterproductive to pollinator protection, on the grounds that a yard can be pollinator-friendly while excluding tall grass, but this is not really true. Some species of pollinators use tall grass directly, burrowing inside hollow stems to nest and hibernate. And all pollinators depend on the nectar and pollen from native wildflowers, which in turn depend on tall grass, a key component of southern Wisconsin’s ecosystem.

At[ the November 21 meeting, Hank recognized all this, yet said that his staff must appease those who are less knowledgeable on the facts.

Out of deference to those who are misinformed about natural landscapes—none of whom personally attended the meeting—the Committee on the Environment voted to approve a limited revision to the ordinance. Now, property owners who have natural plantings occupying only certain small areas of the yard and containing only certain native grass species will be able to bypass the permit requirement. Permits are still available to those who have larger natural plantings and are able to navigate the difficult and poorly-publicized process.