Despite the confusion, for the past four years Chicago has stepped up its weed eradication efforts. In 2010, the minimum fine for a weed violation in the city jumped from $100 to $600, and the number of fines more than doubled from the previous year. According to data obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, Chicago inspectors have issued more than $38.1 million in weed fines since 2009.
This summer, Chicago fined property owners Raymond and Kathryn Ward $650 for uncut weeds. In July, the Wards filed a suit against the city to abolish the law.
According to the suit, Chicago’s weed ordinance “has nothing do with aesthetics, health or safety, but rather is being used as a tool to collect revenue.”
The Wards claim their yard is filled with wildflowers, not weeds. It’s a distinction made by many homeowners who get hit with a fine. They accuse the city of discriminating against a gardening style known as natural landscaping.
Compared to the basic green lawn and other cultivated exotics, native plants require far less water, resist disease, and help pollinator insects such as bees thrive.
One notable victim of the city’s weed law is Kathy Cummings, an avid environmentalist and two-time Green Party candidate. In 2004, her garden won first place in the native landscapes category of the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program. Last year, the same garden was fined $600.
Cummings requested a hearing, and presented the judge with supportive letters from her neighbors. She told the Chicago Reader that the judge based his ruling on a photo of her yard featuring Asclepias, better known as milkweed.
“In my experience, those are weeds,” said the judge.
According to Donna VanBuecken executive director of Wild Ones—a non-profit that promotes natural landscaping—milkweed is not only a Midwest native, but a plant essential to the survival of the monarch butterfly.
“The monarch butterfly needs milkweed. It won’t lay its eggs on any other plant,” she said. “The caterpillar cannot eat any other plant.”
Wild Ones is based in Wisconsin, but VanBuecken has heard complaints about the Chicago law. “It’s really hard to change an ordinance, but it does need to be made out of common sense, and just practicality,” she said.
The basic tenant of the Chicago ordinance is that weeds which exceed an average height of ten inches “are hereby declared a public nuisance.” But because the law never defines what a weed is, any plant taller than ten inches is suspect. When a homeowner challenges a violation in court, judicial interpretation can favor the inspector.
The city argues that weeds are a health and safety hazard. According to the Chicago Streets and Sanitation Department website, tall weeds can “harbor rodents, serve as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and contribute to allergies.”
VanBuecken said these concerns don’t apply to native plants.
“Native plants do not contribute to allergies. Pollen in native plants is typically very heavy and falls to the ground, and is typically only transported by insects,” she said. “Rodents seek garbage. They aren’t seed eaters typically, and what native plants produce is seed.”
Education Not Litigation
Attorney Bret Rappaport has defended many Chicago landowners seeking to grow a native garden. Back when the natural landscaping movement was first taking shape in the late 1980s, Rappaport represented the first wave of gardeners hoping to strike down city’s weed ordinance.
“Since weed is a subjective term—one man’s weed is another man’s rose—we argued that it was unconstitutionally vague,” he said. “You can’t have a criminal law that is not specific. You can’t have a speed limit sign that says, ‘don’t go too fast’.”
The case was thrown out on a technicality, but it got a lot of press, and ultimately brought awareness of the benefits of natural landscaping to city officials. In the 1990s, then Mayor Richard Daley embraced natural landscaping, and the city began holding an annual contest highlighting the best examples.
If Chicago is targeting natural landscapers, officials are sending a very mixed message. A growing number of hospitals, universities, parks, and other public spaces across Chicago now feature tall prairie plants in their landscape design. The Chicago Sustainable Backyard Program recommends that environmentally-minded gardeners include plants such as Echinacea, Switch Grass, and Milkweed.
Rappaport said the natural landscaping practice has become so accepted that he hasn’t defended a weed ordinance case in years. He believes education is much more effective than litigation, and works with municipalities across the country to further the natural landscaping movement.
Experts say making nice with neighbors can help avoid a fine. VanBuecken recommends that native plant gardeners tame their wilderness by minding shared edges, and adding a bench, birdbath or shiny globe to make the space look cared for.
Rappaport said that natural landscapers should also discuss their practice with neighbors to avoid confusion. “99 percent of these cases are complaint driven. That means if your neighbors don’t care, the city doesn’t care. So if you’ve got your neighbors on board as to what you’re doing and why you’re doing it the complaint is never going to happen,” he said.
In Rappaport’s opinion, nearly all of today’s weed ordinance complaints come from either negligent landowners hiding behind a natural landscaping excuse, or someone looking for a fight.
“Maybe those people are legitimate natural landscapers but they tend to tick people off. They’re not interested in solving problems. They’re interested in making statements,” he said.
Epoch Times made calls to the Wards, the couple suing the city, but they were not returned by press time. The large plants that once covered their small yard have since been leveled to avoid further fines. Across the alley, a Catholic school is lined with towering sunflowers.
Although Chicago supports natural landscaping in principle, defining strict regulations is a challenge. Last year, Rappaport met with Chicago officials to bring more clarity to the weed ordinance by discussing how to distinguish a legitimate natural landscape from a neglected lot.
“We talked about whether people who do natural landscapes would have to register. But why should you have to register if you’re doing something good? What about permission? The city’s got a lot of things to do. Are you really going to set up a whole program to permit these kinds of yards? That’s what I think the city is struggling with now,” Rappaport said.
Epoch Times requested an interview with city officials to discuss what other difficulties were involved in crafting a better weed ordinance, but the issue was not addressed.
“Chicago’s weed ordinance was established to maintain the general health and welfare of the city,” said John Holden, director of public affairs for Chicago’s Law Department in an email. “We don’t believe the current lawsuit challenging the ordinance has any merit.”