Laws speak louder than policies: It's time to fully legalize urban pollinator habitat

This article is a part of Madison Voices, which features op-eds from our community members in Madison.

Madison's new Pollinator Protection Plan is unequivocal: if we want to save our bees and butterflies - and by extension our food system - our urban landscaping practices must involve less mowing, less pesticide use, more native plants and more non-plant pollinator habitat.

It is, in short, a call for more natural yards. A natural yard is one that seeks to emulate the ecosystems that were locally present before urban development replaced them with housing tracts and the ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all ideal of the perfectly-maintained lawn.

In southern Wisconsin, natural yards mean tall grass. That's tall native grass and not the European species that were imported along with the European concept of lawns. Native grasses are critical members of prairies and oak savannas, the dominant pre-urbanization ecosystems of this area.

The problem is that tall grass, of any species, is the one landscaping feature that the Madison General Ordinances explicitly forbid. You simply can't have it unless you obtain a permit and the consent of at least 50 percent of your neighbors. When this permit exception was written into law in 1978, it was considered very progressive and was the first law anywhere in the United States that allowed natural yards under any circumstances.

Unfortunately, in the nearly 40 years between 1978 and now, the law has becoming increasingly out of step with attitudes toward natural yards. Today, many municipalities simply assume that homeowners have the right to landscape naturally, no permit necessary. Some have even gone as far as mandating natural landscaping. This is taking place primarily in the Southwest, where increasing water scarcity makes water-hungry lawns untenable as a landscaping option.

You might think that somewhere along the way Madison had simply stopped enforcing the permit requirement – or that it will now that the permit rule is clearly at odds with current city policy. To a large extent, this is true and the city has limited enforcement. In the first seven years after the law's passing, the city issued 26 permits; more recently it receives about two permit applications per year. Start counting natural yards in Madison, though, and you'll quickly see that these numbers don't add up. Many Madisonians are violating the law and have never been ordered to desist.

However, the city does occasionally enforce the law against well-meaning, environmentally-conscious residents. In such cases, the city may pursue the issue for months, even if the homeowner has applied for the necessary permit. The city can simply refuse to process the application while pursuing the resident. There seems to be no incentive for them to do otherwise and work with the resident to get the permit approved.

The city department responsible for processing permit applications and prosecuting unpermitted natural yards is aware of the Pollinator Protection Plan. They are aware that the conflicting, 40-year-old law is being revised. They have indicated that they will continue targeting residents who are complying with the city’s new pollinator policy, so long as those residents remain in violation of the outdated but existing city law.

The revised version of the law must make it clear that residents have the right to maintain a natural yard. In any dispute the burden of proof must be on the opponent of the natural yard to show that the homeowner's landscaping practices are causing some sort of harm. Further, the law should make it more difficult for homeowners to engage in landscaping practices that are contrary to the goals of the Pollinator Protection Plan. It is lawns and pesticides that ought to be under scrutiny, not native grasses and wildflowers. If we are serious about protecting our urban environment, both for pollinators and for ourselves, we can do no less.

Janette Rosenbaum is a master's student at UW–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.