Here's a guest rant from Michelle Clay/The Clueless Gardeners.
In July, against their wishes, the city of Bartlett,
Illinois mowed down Donald and Benia Zouras’s garden. And Don and Benia have to pay for it.
I’ve sifted through their record of what happened,
and I’ve read the relevant parts of their town’s laws. The research has left me confused. The fact that I’m not a lawyer doesn’t
Some background: Don and Benia have worked for years to make
their suburban yard into a wildlife habitat. Their yard was one of three that I profiled back in March
here at Garden Rant as risky but noble gardening causes. At the time, Don seemed confident
that his two brushes with disapproving neighbors and heavy-handed local laws
were the end of his troubles.
The Zouras’s made an effort through signs to let their
neighbors know what was up with the yard.
But despite having their website posted on a sign by the sidewalk, they
received almost no feedback until after the mowing took place. Anonymous neighbors then called his
yard an eyesore, an overgrown mess.
“At least with a forclosed home someone is mowing the lawn.” said one
person.” Said another, “You need
to realize there is other houses around you and it just doesn't blend in; it's
simply ugly and unorganized. Keep that stuff in your backyard.”
These comments were, thankfully, outnumbered by sympathetic
To be clear, it wasn’t their entire yard that got mowed; it
was the strip between sidewalk and road where the utilities are buried. But here is the odd part: the town
cited a part of the law that applies to creating obstructions (visual or
otherwise) to pedestrian or vehicular traffic. The Zouras’s hell-strip garden may not have been the
aesthetic ideal of suburbia, but they live on a straight road, away from
intersections. Their plants could
hardly be blocking the view of drivers.
Furthermore, judging by the photos, the plants did not flop significantly
into the sidewalk. Was the
bureaucrat who cited that part of the law just inept? Or was that particular snippet of the town code drawn out of
a hat as an excuse to enforce the aesthetics of some neighbor who had his
panties in a bunch?
they received from the town also mentions that it is unlawful to plant anything
“in any public street or parkway” without approval of the Public Works
Director. This, I think, is
the only part of the town’s complaint that holds water. The Zouras’s did not apply for a
permit to plant where the street’s power lines are buried, and therefore the
town trumps. Never mind that Don
attempted to get some clarity from town on the letter’s strange wording, and
was answered with one-line variants of “we already sent you a letter that says
you violated the town’s code.”
Oddly, there was another part of the law which the town didn’t
use against the Zouras’s yard, but could have: the Nuisance Laws. These laws state that “Any such
weeds as jimson, burdock, ragweed, thistle. . .” (perhaps the authors of this
law were unaware that Pitcher’s thistle, Cirsium pitcher, is listed as a
federally threatened plant) “. .
.cockleburr, or other weeds of like kind. . .” (Mead’s milkweed, Asclepias meadi, is likewise
endangered) “. . .found growing in
any lot or tract of land. . .”
(even parkland?) “. . . in
the village are hereby declared to be a nuisance, and it shall be unlawful to
permit any such weeds to grow or remain. . .” (This is a joke, right? I can understand making weed illegal, but weeds?)
This bit is somewhat of a tangent, but I can‘t resist
repeating it here: “It shall be unlawful for anyone to permit weeds, grass or
plants, other than trees, bushes, flowers or other ornamental plants to grow to
a height exceeding eight inches. . .”
Just let that one sink in a bit. A Bartlett resident could be fined for growing
tomatoes. Or for owning an ugly
shade tree. Perhaps the town didn’t
cite this section of the law because the law is too ridiculous to hold up in
For the safety of workers, and to protect the underground
cables and pipes from damage, it is reasonable for a town to demand permits for
what gardeners plant on their utility strips. But would the town have turned a blind eye on Don’s yard for
a few more years if the neighbors had found it to be visually appealing? Did the town go clumsily looking for an
excuse to mow his yard in order to appease the offended sensibilities of a few
If there's a lawyer in the house, I would love to hear an opinion.
Photo used with permission from Don Zouras.