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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