ecological restoration

The City of Madison asks residents to have more environmentally-friendly yards. Many do. A few get prosecuted for it.

The City of Madison asks residents to have more environmentally-friendly yards. Many do. A few get prosecuted for it.

By Janette Rosenbaum, Madison freelance journalist.


In the 1970’s, Madison became the first city to legalize natural yards – that is, yards that feature native plants in natural-style assemblages, rather than a lawn accented by a few ornamental exotics. Any property owner, the law says, may have a natural yard if they apply for and receive a permit from the city. [1]

A property owner attempts to follow the law

Reading this law today, it seems that the intent was only ever to distinguish between deliberate alternative gardening practices and the results of simple neglect. Even so, I was surprised to find it still on the books in the fall of 2013, when I was researching my legal rights and responsibilities in regards to the house I was about to buy.

I thought it was a case of “technically still on the books” – that is, the law still existed but was no longer being enforced. Clearly many people in Madison had natural yards, yet I could hardly find anyone who knew about the law. Their yards were illegal, because they had no permit, but they had never had any problem related to their gardening practices. [2]

To be on the safe side, I contacted the city to get further information on the permit application process, then submitted an application shortly after I moved into my new house, in February of 2014. By May, when the snow finally melted, I had received no response from the city. Taking this as confirmation that the law was no longer being enforced, I went ahead with my gardening plan as I had described it in the permit application.

A full year after that, in May of 2015, I received a letter from the city saying that I was violating the laws related to non-natural yards. [3] The letter indicated that the inspector could be contacted with questions. I contacted her right away, pointing out that I had submitted an application for a natural yard permit, and therefore should be exempt from the laws covering non-natural yards.

That email was immediately forwarded to the supervisor to whom I had submitted my application. He wrote back that he had indeed been in possession of the application for over a year, but had never done anything with it. He forwarded it to another colleague, who is responsible for reviewing the applications, and whose existence had not been mentioned in any of the instructions I had been given.

This colleague wanted to give me feedback on the application in person, but did not tell me where the meeting he proposed would be held. It took multiple follow-ups, both before and after the meeting was supposed to have occurred, to get an answer to that question. This led to further delay in receipt of the feedback.

In the meantime, the inspector proceeded with the fixed schedule of letters and re-inspections related to the alleged violations, as though my application were not under seriously-belated review. This resulted in the issuance of a citation for violating the non-natural yard laws before I received any feedback on the natural yard application I had submitted sixteen months earlier.

Amazingly, the story went downhill from there. Five months later, the application is still under review, and the city is continuing to claim that I am in violation of the non-natural yard laws.

Some city departments enforce the law, others ask people to break it

These laws are not only obsolete, and not only being flagrantly violated by thousands of people all over the city [4] – they are in contradiction to current city policy. While the Sustainability Plan released in 2011 does not mention yards, careful reading and a little knowledge of environmental science reveal that natural yards support the goals of the plan, while non-natural yards contribute to many of the harms the plan seeks to reduce. [5]

In even more recent city policy, Madison released a Pollinator Protection Plan earlier this summer. The recommended actions of this plan can be summarized as four basic practices: less mowing, less pesticide use, more native plants, and more non-plant pollinator habitat. Again, natural yards support these goals; non-natural yards do not.

Under the heading of city policy so new it hasn’t even been released yet, local officials are currently rewriting the laws regarding natural and non-natural yards. While it is not yet known exactly what the new ordinances will look like, it is a safe bet that they will make it easier for property owners to have natural yards legally, and they may even increase the difficulty of having a legal non-natural yard.

Despite all of this, the city is continuing to – occasionally, selectively – enforce the outdated laws. When the owners of natural yards attempt to comply with the laws by obtaining a permit, the city can choose to be uncooperative in the review process. [6] Since it is nearly impossible to obtain a permit under such circumstances, the property owner is left with little choice other than to revert to a non-natural yard – even though the city, through its recent policies, appears to want exactly the opposite – or to continue violating the laws.

Restoring consistency

This situation must change. Residents of Madison must keep the pressure on city officials to update the laws so that they align with, rather than oppose, current policy. Support for progressive new laws can be voiced through this petition.

In addition, between now and the release of the new laws, the city must recognize that the current laws are obsolete and counterproductive. This petition asks city officials to stop enforcing the current laws, in anticipation of their soon being stricken from the books.

Finally, those against whom the current laws are enforced – including me – can suffer significant financial hardship from fighting the enforcement. As a graduate student and freelance journalist, the costs associated with this battle have put me at risk of losing the house where I have put so much effort into doing what the city says it wants everyone to do with their yards. Your support is greatly appreciated.

[1] See Madison General Ordinances 27.05(2)(f) 2, 3, and 5. Technically a permit is only required for tall grass, but a natural yard in Madison will probably involve prairie-style plantings, which will almost certainly include tall native grasses. Thus I refer to the permit being required for natural yards. Note that the form referenced in section 5 seems to no longer exist. There is a booklet containing more information on the application process, but it can only be obtained at the library of the State Historical Society.

[2] The city later told me they receive about two permit applications per year. The numbers clearly don’t add up.

[3] Madison General Ordinance 27.05(2)(f). In short, “mow your lawn”.

[4] A recent survey by an east side neighborhood association found that over 70% of homes were in violation of related ordinances. I extrapolate from their sample size of about 100 properties to the total population of Madison, recognizing that violations are probably not distributed equally across neighborhoods.

[5] For example, the plan includes a goal of improving air quality. Lawnmowers release lots of pollutants. Natural yards don’t.

[6] In my case, they have failed to answer emails, requested information that is already in the plan, claimed they are not responsible for thoroughly reading the plan, and refused to give me the checklist they are allegedly evaluating the plan against.

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This is what “Conservation” looks like in Dane County Parks…

This is what “Conservation” looks like in Dane County Parks…

Seventeen 80-year-old trees were cut down in Lake View Hill Conservancy County Park in ten hours of one day, Sept 3, 2015….VIDEO 1 [0:33]…and ground up on the spot…. VIDEO 2 [1:43]

WHY? According to Dane County Parks Director Darren Marsh, the trees needed to be “removed” primarily to “improve the viewshed” for people or because they had “poor form”—like this perfectly healthy giant tree, which you see killed in the first video.

Here’s what the new improved “viewshed” looks like: VIDEO 3 [1:38] Was it worth it?

Last year, beginning on Earth Day, and in months afterwards, many more trees were cut to improve the views—see our previous story. We estimate that in 2014 and 2015, well over 30 trees were cut down in one area of Lake View Hill Park (in addition to the numerous trees–20+?– killed to make way for the new water tower).

How can people wantonly destroy such beautiful trees for no good reason?

Why is such pointless killing of trees approved as part of “conservation” by Dane County Parks?

This killing of trees was funded by public money–in other words, your money. The trees were on public land; it belongs to all of us. Dane County citizens who questioned this pointless destruction of 80 year old trees were dismissed, ridiculed, or just ignored by county officials and parks staff.

Please let your county supervisors, Dane County Parks Commissioners, and Executive Joe Parisi know how you feel about this:

County Executive–


Park Commissioners–



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Dane County Parks Celebrates Earth Week by Cutting Down Many Large Trees

Dane County Parks Celebrates Earth Week by Cutting Down Many Large Trees

(Cut tree stumps treated with pesticides, Lake View Hill Park, April 23rd)

On Earth Day and the day after, April 22rd and April 23th 2014, contractors hired by Dane County Parks cut down several large, healthy trees near the top of Lake View Hill Park, a county “conservancy” on Madison’s north side, near Warner Park. Some of the trees, just south of the old nurse’s dorm, were mature and productive mulberries that neighborhood children have harvested delicious berries from for years. They were also habitat and favorite food sources for deer, birds, and other wildlife. Sadly, this summer animals and kids who go there for berries will find their beloved trees gone—replaced by pesticide-sprayed stumps. Happy Earth Day from Dane County Parks!

Why? When asked what the rationale was for cutting down all these large trees, Nelson Eisman, Dane County Parks staff who directed the contractors to cut the trees, said that the roots were damaging the old stone wall of the nurse’s dorm, which will be demolished soon. Further, he said, “they’re mulberries”[1] and were “obstructing the view” from the top of the hill.

Yes, you read that correctly. Large trees are being cut down by Dane County Parks, in part, to improve the view for people. In fact, in the last several years, the county has spent many thousands of public dollars [2] slowly clear-cutting the hill for the sake of “the viewshed.” Not long ago, several huge, thriving trees, including some beautiful pines on the hill that were popular nesting sites for hawks and other birds, were cut down. Again—why?

As with the Earth Week tree-chainsawing spree, we were told then that the trees were cut to improve the “the viewshed” from the top of the hill and so that “people driving on Northport Drive can have a better view of the nurse’s dorm.”  What? Really?? Yes, this is what they said. Beautiful, mature trees were cut down so people driving 35+ mph down a county highway can catch a fleeting glimpse of an abandoned, crumbling building on the top of a hill—one that will now be demolished.

Just as ironic and sad, community members involved in focus group discussions last year about the fate of the nurse’s dorm agreed that “healing” was a critical component of what should happen on the land there no matter what became of the building. Focus group participants also agreed that serious stormwater runoff problems in the highly-sloped areas around the nurse’s dorm need to be addressed asap–especially before the building is demolished and the water tower behind it torn down and rebuilt. How is cutting down many large trees going to reduce stormwater runoff? How is this healing the land?

Lake View Hill Park is county public land; it belongs to all of us. Land in this park, especially the large trees, provide precious wildlife food and habitat—habitat that is shrinking and increasingly rare in a city and county where more and more land is being developed, and trees cut down, to make way for roads, condominiums, McMansions and corporate business parks.

Where is the public discussion about what is happening on this public land?  Where is the community discussion about how the many thousands of public dollars per year are spent in this park? Is this really what Northsiders, the broader Madison community, and other citizens of Dane County want—a Lake View hill steeped in toxic pesticides and devoid of trees, so that people have a better “viewshed” from the hilltop and when driving down the road nearby?

It is a sad day indeed when those entrusted with protecting our public park land—in this case, land citizens in the neighborhood worked hard to protect with conservancy zoning—chainsaw down large healthy trees on Earth Day.

For shame, Dane County Parks!


[1] Some mulberry species are native to Wisconsin and others aren’t. At this point, the native and non-native species have hybridized and are very difficult if not impossible to tell apart.

[2] Much of the work in Lake View Hill Park is funded through fees paid to the county by the telecomm companies for having their communication equipment on the Lake View water tower. In the last few years, tens of thousands of dollars of this money have gone to buy pesticides from Dow Agro and other pesticide companies—and to cut down large trees.

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