The couple’s victory forces Smiths Falls to revise its approach to ‘naturalized’ lawns

A couple from Smiths Falls, Ont., say they’re glad the city overturned an order to uproot their “naturalized” lawn, but fear the battle isn’t over yet.

Instead of a manicured lawn and garden, Beth and Craig Sinclair planted 150 trees and other native plant species in front of their bungalow. The couple, who moved from Seattle to Smiths Falls a decade ago, said natural lawns like theirs were common in their old town.

We can restore so much nature to our lawns.– Craig Sinclair

“I thought I should do something better with my lawn,” Craig Sinclair said.

“We are trying to make a difference for the ecology,” agreed Beth Sinclair.

Before planting, the Sinclairs researched the benefits of naturalized lawns and informed the city of their plan. This did not prevent numerous visits from municipal agents, who told them, among other things, that their bird feeders were too close to the ground.

Last October, the couple noticed their yard was an item on council’s agenda, along with a 17-page report which detailed complaints from neighbors and recommended that they be required to tame their yard. The board agreed and an order was issued.

The Sinclairs’ front yard last summer. (Craig Sinclair)

The couple hired a lawyer

The couple called on lawyer David Donnelly to help. On January 25, they appealed the council’s decision to the city’s property standards committee, but lost two of the three points in dispute.

The Sinclairs then appealed to the Ontario Superior Court, and earlier this month the city reversed and overturned the original order.

Donnelly said similar cases followed the owner’s path, setting a precedent.

“People are allowed to grow natural gardens as part of their environmental ethic,” he said. “These plaintiffs were using settlement officers as a sort of instrument to enforce their own aesthetics.”

Craig Sinclair says most complaints about his front yard have focused on its appearance, but he thinks wild plants are a better environmental choice than manicured lawns. (Submitted by Craig Sinclair)

The couple say they have received a lot of local support and pointed to the stark contrast between the city’s position and that of the City of Toronto, where gardens that attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies are eligible for a grant of up to $5,000.

In an email, Kerry Costello, director of business services for the city, said Smiths Falls is reviewing its property standards bylaw and will consider a new provision for naturalized yards.

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Craig Sinclair of Smiths Falls, Ont., says his city ordered him and his partner to tear up their naturalized lawn. They challenged that order in Ontario Superior Court and the city backed down, but Sinclair says the fight is not over.

A “very outdated idea”

But Beth Sinclair said the experience was overwhelming nonetheless.

“It’s very sad the way the bylaw works, that one person can complain all the time and get a response. And so many city resources are being spent on that, it’s really sad.”

Nina-Marie Lister, a professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Metropolitan University of Toronto, said this was a common source of conflict.

“There are many small municipalities in Ontario, and some larger ones, that continue to have vaguely worded and arbitrarily enforced bylaws,” said Lister, currently a visiting professor of landscape architecture at Harvard University.

Nina-Marie Lister, a professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Metropolitan University of Toronto, says the idea that lawns need to be tended is “a kind of very old colonial mentality.” (Johnny CY Lam)

Lister and his pupils have developed a model settlement which was used by the City of Toronto to revise its own rules governing landscaping on private property.

“It’s kind of weird that we still have a kind of very old colonial mentality that the only thing for a yard is a monoculture or a single species of turf that’s not even native,” she said. . “And it takes a tremendous amount of water, energy inputs like fertilizers and sometimes pesticides to sustain this very outdated idea.”

A partial victory

The Sinclairs said it only looked like a partial victory.

“Until the bylaws change in all 400 municipalities in Ontario, I don’t feel very satisfied,” said Craig Sinclair. “I want everyone in Ontario not only to have the right to do this, but to be encouraged to do so. We can restore so much nature to our lawns.”

The city’s by-laws department ordered the Sinclairs to remove any plants within three meters of the road. This photo was taken last fall. (Craig Sinclair)

Smith Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow said he regretted the dispute on the Sinclairs’ lawn, but thought it could be beneficial.

“I know it’s caused a lot of grief for the Sinclairs, and it’s been a bit of a difficult environment for a lot of people through this,” Pankow said. “But the result is that the city will come up with a naturalization bylaw.

“I would like to see a fairly liberal policy [while] respecting that it may not appeal to everyone, but acknowledging the merits…both to wildlife and to the natural environment.”

The municipality has launched an online survey. The revised by-law is expected to be presented to council in June.