Tag Archives: pesky neighbors

Township Ordinances and Front/Back Lawn Battles – My Own Story

In my post a few weeks ago about what I called the “Garden Resistance Movement” (where people are converting their yards to gardens, etc.), I alluded to the fact that I was now on the front lines of this particular fight.  I decided to withhold posting more details until I took the time to A) carefully consider my approach; B) educate myself on the issues; and C) consult some experts.  So in this post, I’m going to describe what happened, outline the current ordinances, and describe some steps that I’m taking and have already taken to address the issue. I’m going to start by providing a bit of context and some photos to describe my personal situation at hand, and then I’ll broaden out to discuss the steps I’ve taken and where this whole thing is heading.

 

The Land

Since I moved into this land, I’ve been establishing it as a sacred site, a sacred grove, a place where all life is respected and honored, as a space of growth for visitors and inhabitants, be them human or otherwise. As part of this, I’ve talked about cleaning up and healing the land, establishing gardens, building sacred spaces, and much more!  So this is the context going into my story.

 

My home is situated on a 3 acre parcel in rural Northwestern Oakland County, Michigan, in the township of Independence.  Most of the homes on this particular road are 3 acres or 5 acres; the neighbor across the street has 80 acres.  Directly across the street, a lush wetland exists, to the right, I have a very nice but “conventional” neighbor who sprays for bugs, mosquitoes, weeds, and everything else.  My neighbors behind me and to the left don’t seem as bad, but I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know them.  My property is surrounded on all sides by large oaks, cottonwoods, sassafras, and maple trees, and much of it is quite private, not visible from anyone else’s yard or road.

Fire pit and garden area

Fire pit and garden area

Butterfly Garden

Butterfly Garden

 

This brings me to my road.  The road that I live on is a dirt road, and much of it is what others would call “overgrown” but what I prefer to describe as “lush and lively.” Most people have trees/plants growing wild in their front yards and along the drainage ditch.  All the “noxious weeds” listed in my township’s code or ordinances grow along this road freely.  A lot of people have a portion of yard that they mow behind that section, and this, dear readers, is where we get in trouble.

Road heading north

Road heading north

Road heading south

Road heading south

Now if you remember several months ago, I decided to stop mowing my yard.  I’m in the process of converting it into a wildlife and butterfly sanctuary, and using good permaculture principles including spending a full year in observation, I wanted to do some site observations to see what is currently growing there.  This was hard to do if it was always in a mowed state–I didn’t want to rip out potentially native or beneficial plants, but they are hard to ID if they are only 3″ high. Plus, I was sick of consuming fossil fuels to maintain the space.  I didn’t even realize that anyone would care, seeing how rural I am, nor that there were ordinances against such an approach.

Home from road

Home from road

By mid-June, I had a number of wildflowers, brambles, and grasses growing and was quite proud of the result of just letting things “be.”  I saw some areas where I wanted to reduce grasses and increase flowers and other beneficial plants, and had started formulating a plan for what plants would go where.

 

In June, apparently, multiple someones got angry at the state of affairs in my unmowed (but certainly not untended) front lawn area and complained to the township.  Unbeknownst to me, they sent someone out to assess the site.  The people who complained and the township assessor never approached me or asked me any questions.  This was the same time that the house next to me went up on the market for sale; I have a strong suspicion that the realtor called because it would somehow “look bad.”

The letter

The letter

Just before the 4th of July, I received the following letter from my township. It certainly wasn’t friendly, and frankly, as a new homeowner, it scared me and angered me. I had to wait till after the holiday weekend, and when I called early the next week, the woman on the phone in the township office kindly but firmly explained to me that I had no recourse but to mow it, and if I didn’t mow it, the township would send someone to mow it.  She also said that they would place a lien on my house, and the whole ordeal would cost me somewhere around $1000. I inquired about the process for talking to someone to change the laws, and I was given a host of names, many of whom I left messages for and never heard back from. But I was also given just three days to mow, and that left me little choice and few other options.

 

The Initial Defeat

At this point, I was at my lowest. I’m a single woman, on a single income, and things are tight. I am in the process of refinancing my mortgage, so I can’t have any kind of lien.  I was  seriously terrified and out of the fact that I can’t afford to pay the township $1000, and so, I’m ashamed to say, I capitulated. I remember the day I mowed it all down–I sat on that stupid mower and cried my eyes out as I watched my lovely flowers and grasses get the axe.  I felt the land weeping as I wept, the loss of habitat and the loss of fossil fuel all to achieve some image that I ethically and spiritually disagreed with.

But after the defeat, I realized that the real work still was ahead of me. I straightened my shoulders and set out to learn everything I could about township ordinances and how to change them. I spoke to a friend who is heavily involved in the politics of another township, and he had himself rewritten the laws only 5 years ago concerning lawns.  He ended up being a wealth of knowledge and had lots of suggestions for other people to contact.  About a week after I received the letter, we stood at my farmer’s market booth and spoke of the issues; he followed up with some more suggestions and a number of people to contact.  The following week, again at the farmer’s market, I spoke to a few other concerned citizens, including another person who also received a letter.

 

Task Force Formation

In the last few weeks, this amazing group of people emerged who were knowledgeable about politics, ordinances, native plants, alternatives, and so forth–and so willing to help and lend their support.  The two of us who received letters are  forming a task force, which will meet in late August, to address the issue at the township level and work to educate our local community and work with our politicians to help change the laws to be more earth-friendly.  And despite my initial defeat, I am given hope–hope that there are so many who know more than me about these processes, hope that we can enact better laws to change our relationship with our landscape.

Part of me is disappointed in my own actions, in capitulating so quickly, but when I step back and look at the bigger picture, I realize that this is about more than just my patch of lawn.  Its about working with people, rather than against them, to enact positive change.  If I put myself in an adversarial relationship with the township, I think I would be much less likely to succeed.  This whole process has also given me a unique opportunity to educate myself and help create positive change for our community.  In the least, I plan on documenting our task force’s efforts and compiling resource lists so that other people can learn about what we learned!

 

Other Legitimizing Steps: Certifying the Land

The other thing that was suggested to me, and that I’ve already done, was to officially establish the property as a wildlife and butterfly sanctuary.  The butterfly garden was the first thing I put in when I moved here three years ago, and I’ve been adding more and more beneficial plants and observing how the plants that already are here help the wildlife.  I went through two organizations to register the land and get appropriate signage:

Certified Wildlife Habitat (through the National Wildlife Federation): This program focuses on providing habitat within homes, businesses, and communities for birds, insects, plants, and animals.

Monarch Watch Certified Waystation: This program targets the endangered monarch butterfly, whose numbers have been substantially declining in light of loss of habitat and chemical agriculture.

I spent $50 on the NWF certification and $40 on the Monarch certification–this included the certification and the sign in both cases.  I was also very pleased to note that when I looked online at the requirements for both certifications, i realized that I already exceeded the base requirement due to my previous work.

These programs provide you with a certificate, and, if you want to pay a bit extra, a nice sign for your yard.  The sign, I was told, is incredibly important–it helps people understand what you are doing and educates them on the issues.  I am looking forward to receiving these signs in the mail and creating one of my own explaining my work here.

 

Conclusion

You’ll probably be seeing a lot more posts on this blog in the future about how to navigate complex legal ordinances and ways of building community support.  This story is far from over–so stay tuned!

The Garden Resistance Movement – Replacing Front Yards with Gardens and Food Forests

Note: I have been composing this blog post for quite some time.  This past week, I received a letter from my township about the “state of my lawn” and now find myself in a similar position to those I was blogging about in composing this post.  I’m going to go ahead and post this entry about garden resistance movement and then later in the week, share my own story as it unfolds…

 

A garden that was once a lawn!

A garden that was once a lawn!

A movement is sweeping across America. Rejecting the traditional notion of the perfect lawn (which I recently blogged about here), Americans from all walks of life who live in urban and suburban settings are working to convert their lawns into vegetable and perennial gardens. From a sustainability standpoint, nothing could be better than replacing consumptive yard spaces with organic gardening practices. Organic gardening of any kind will allow a healthy interaction with nature, will produce food locally, and will minimize the consumption of fossil fuel and pesticide use (common in lawn “care” products). Beyond organic gardening, there are growing trends of people are integrating other aspects into their garden, such as keeping chickens.

 

While this sounds like a wonderful thing to anyone who is of a sustainability mindset, there has been considerable resistance to the idea nationwide. As I blogged about before, the fascination, or perhaps obsession, with the perfect velvety green lawn is incredibly strong in the USA. Any challenges to that established norm have been met with substantial resistance. Seemingly disregarding the fact that our country was founded on the backs of farmers (even many of our founding presidents were farmers), Americans are up in arms over the fact that their neighbors’ lawns are disappearing. Citing everything from “eyesores” to “declining property values”, farmer/gardener/homesteaders in suburban and urban areas are facing the wrath of angry neighbors, housing associations, township and city ordinances, and the like.

 

To give a sense of the range of events, here are just a few of the cases in the last few years:

 

Julie Bass, of Oak Park, Michigan (which is about a 30 minute drive from where I live) had her lawn ripped up when the city was installing some new pipes. She decided to plant a garden in its place.  City officials decided that she did not have “suitable” cover and fined her and gave her a ticket. She ignored such charges, and then faced up to 90 days in jail time.  While the charges were dropped and she never went to jail, the fact that the matter was handled in the way it was, and the fact that it turned into a national issue is worth considering.

Jason Helvenston planted a garden outside his house, which eventually drew the ire of an out-of-town property owner next door. The city again stepped in, and the verdict is out as to whether or not his garden can stay.

 

Derek Becker and Nicole Shaw literally sold their home and moved to a new area after increasing pressure (and a $20,000 financial drain in legal fees) to discontinue their backyard homesteading.  And more and more stories pop up like these three every day.  In February, at least one city has gone so far as to consider a front-lawn ban on vegetable gardens entirely (while it was defeated, I think it speaks to the climate in general concerning gardens).

 

Friend's garden converted from lawn

Friend’s garden converted from lawn

If we step back from the individual cases and consider this as a larger movement, I think we can consider a few trends occurring:

 

First and foremost:  the front-yard, stop mowing your grass and/or convert-your-lawn movement is growing in popularity as we gain more people interested in moving away from industrialized food and into more sustainable lifestyles.  The lawn is undergoing shifts as the predominant landscape feature, and that shift will take some getting used to for those who have spent their whole lives seeing the green velvety lawn as “that which is worth aspiring to.”

 

With that said, however, this converting the lawn movement is far from reaching its full potential.  Since reading about the Oak Park/Julie Bass story a few years ago, I have spent considerable time observing neighborhoods in the Detroit Metro area (where I live). While lots of urban gardening and community food movements are happening in the city center (especially in abandoned lots), the more wealthy the suburbs, the less of it there seems to be (especially front yard gardening).  I haven’t yet done systematic observations, but it does seem that the more wealthy an area is, the less likely you are going to see any kind of productive perennial or annual gardens.  I’m wondering if others have noticed the same.

 

The second thing this suggests is that challenging America’s relationship with nature, especially in high-population areas, is not going to be easy or quick. When city officials or townships are willing to physically tear out gardens after 1-2 complaints, I think we are a long way from seeing general acceptance of gardens.  With that said though, municipalities are making urban chickens and gardening legal in other areas, and some laws are even being overturned.  So the best thing that people can do is put that garden in and prepare to fight for it, if necessary.  I think that the recent social media campaigns, like the “Oak Park Hates Veggies” campaign that took place in Michigan, are also excellent ways of spreading the word and supporting those who are on the front lines of this movement.

 

The third issue that is coming up (including in some of the stories I linked to) concerns the idea of rights, rights that all humans should have.  Should it be a “right” to plant veggies where one chooses?  Do others have the right to determine what should occur with someone else’s property?  A lot of these regulations seem to specifically target the efforts of  self-sufficiency and sustainability (which makes sense, if our modus operandi is consumerism, and this is a direct threat to several billion-dollar industries). For decades, increasing government regulation and intervention have been interfering with homesteader/gardener’s abilities to grow their own food and live sustainably. I’ll again mention Joel Slatin’s fabulous book, “Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front” for at least one compelling story concerning government regulation; another one that has seen a lot of press is the Rawsomefoods Raids.

 

To me, it seems that if you want to grow vegetables, raise chickens, and so forth, you should be able to do this in your front yard, back yard, or wherever. I understand that many would take issue with such a statement, but, as a nation and as a world, we are facing increasingly serious challenges in global food supply, depleting fossil fuel resources, and so forth. Growing a bit of one’s own food is a good way to begin to address some of these challenges, at least in our own small way. It certainly has helped me cope with the increasing chaos in my own country. And this food growing shouldn’t be limited to rural areas like where I live–food needs to be grown where people eat it; which means it needs to be grown in cities, in suburbs, at schools, in parks, etc.

 

I do think there are limits to individual rights though–for example, one of my neighbors routinely sprays his lawn and sprays for mosquitoes–this prevents me from raising bees (my friends already had massive colony collapse due to mosquito spray and other sprays in their neighborhood a few miles away).  This directly threatens so much life.  Is it my neighbor’s right to spray for bees? Who protects the bees and other life that is directly affected by this spray?

 

These are hard questions that more and more communities face as we continue to slide further down Hubbert’s peak and see increasing strains on our world’s resources.