Also written by: Brienna French
With the combined and interrelated pressures of climate change, soil degradation and declining pollinator species, individual homeowners are increasingly looking for solutions to address these issues. There has been growing interest in the reseeding or naturalization of residential properties as a means of dealing with these pressures at the individual level.1 We were recently interviewed on CBC’s London Morning to discuss the legality of such efforts.2
Simply put, rewilding is bringing your garden back to a naturalized state by planting native grasses, flowers, and pollinator-friendly plants. This could include planting native perennial grasses or goldenrod, which can reach a height of 5 feet.
In Ontario, efforts in this regard must take into account the regulatory framework under the Municipalities Act3 and relevant municipal by-laws, which allow municipalities to regulate property standards, including keeping land clean and clear.
This article will provide a high-level overview of the legal framework that applies to efforts to naturalize or rewild properties. A companion article on “Courts, the Constitution, and Naturalized Lawn” will examine relevant court decisions on the interplay between property standards regulations and naturalization.
MUNICIPAL REGULATION OF PROPERTY STANDARDS
The power to regulate lawn maintenance is given in section 127 of the Municipalities Act.4 This section provides that a municipality may “require the owner or occupier of land to clean and clear the land, excluding buildings, or to remove garbage or debris from the land” .5 Because Section 127 of the Municipalities Act gives each Ontario municipality the power to define the meaning of cleaning, clearing, trash and debris, there is a patchwork of property standards bylaws across the province that take different approaches to naturalization and reseeding.
Section 128 of the Municipalities Act grants additional powers to individual municipalities:
[…] a local municipality may prohibit and regulate public nuisances, including matters which, in the opinion of Council, are or may become or cause a public nuisance, and Council is of the opinion that failure to remove litter and land debris is a public nuisance, including the spread of vermin.6
Thus, if many town councilors prefer the classic aesthetic of a short, all-grass lawn, this bias will guide municipal regulations and allow for stricter regulations against rewilding.
CITY OF LONDON GROUNDS AND GROUNDS CARE BY-LAW
For example, the relevant regulation in London is the “Yard and Lot Maintenance By-law”,seven which is defined as “[a] By-law to provide for the backfilling, dewatering, cleaning and clearing of the grounds, as well as the removal of garbage on the grounds.”
Ownership standards set out in the London By-law apply to rear and front yards. The by-law obliges the “owners” of the land, including tenants and occupants, to “keep their land clean, clear and free of litter”. “Clearing” land is defined in the regulations as “the removal of weeds or grass higher than 20 centimeters”.8 Further, “waste” is defined to include “household waste”, i.e. any article, thing or material which appears to be waste, including “grass clippings, cut trees, brush , leaves and garden waste”.9
While Londoners must keep their lawns free of weeds and grass higher than 20 centimetres, neither ‘weeds’ nor ‘grass’ are specifically defined in the regulations. Enforcement could order the removal of intentionally planted, pollinator-friendly flowers, perennials or native grasses, treating these plants as weeds or grasses taller than 20 centimeters.
However, the London Property Standards By-law provides exemptions to the ‘cleanliness and clearance’ requirement for ‘wildflower meadows’, ‘perennial gardens’ and ‘naturalized areas’, as long as there is a compulsory “buffer strip” of at least 0.9 meters wide to delimit them.
- A “wildflower meadow” is defined as a specialized habitat dominated by native species of flowers and grasses
- A “naturalized area” is defined as a portion of a lot where a lawn or perennial garden that was previously maintained by the owner has been allowed to re-establish a breeding population of native species.
- A “perennial garden” is defined as an area “deliberately placed to produce a ground cover, including wildflowers, shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses, or combinations thereof”.ten
CITY OF TORONTO GRASS AND PROHIBITED PLANTS BYLAW
In contrast, the Toronto Yard Maintenance By-law takes a different approach. Chapter 489 of the Toronto Municipal Code, “The Turfgrass and Prohibited Plants By-law”,11 was amended effective January 1, 2022 to require Torontonians to mow the “grass” on their lawn when growth exceeds 20 centimeters. “Grass” is specifically defined as “[g]round cover of various perennial grasses grown for lawns, of a type which forms a dense, uniform turf if mowed.12
Although the Toronto bylaw also requires private lands to be free of “local weeds”, it specifically defines these weeds in Schedule A and includes common buckthorn, strangler vine, garlic mustard, phragmites, poison ivy and others. The Toronto City Bylaw also expressly incorporates and maintains regulations made under the Weed Control Act.
WHAT IS THE WEED CONTROL ACT AND HOW DOES IT IMPACT MY YARD?
The Weed Control Act regulates “noxious” weeds that harm human and ecosystem health. For example, poison ivy is a weed because of the harmful rashes it causes in humans. Additionally, garlic mustard and purple loosestrife are harmful because they are invasive species that invade forest floors and choke out native plants.
According to Section 3 of the Weed Control Act, “[e]Anyone in possession of land must destroy all weeds on it.13 Thus, if an occupant has weeds or harmful seeds on his land, the municipality can order him to destroy these weeds. Homeowners should stay informed about plants classified as noxious weeds and maintain a yard free of these plants to comply with the Weed Control Act and minimize the possibility of enforcement visits.
It is important to note that many municipalities in the province have much more restrictive property standards bylaws than London or Toronto. Many municipal bylaws continue to include a strict mandate to keep yards clean and clear, including the removal of grass and weeds for a certain length, with no exceptions for naturalized areas or wildflower meadows.
Since each municipality has its own bylaws, property owners should consult relevant bylaws or seek legal advice on property standards applicable in their area.
Our related article will examine how courts have interpreted restrictive property standards bylaws.
1 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/smith-falls-naturalized-lawn-yard-victory-bylaw-environment-ecology-wildlife-diversity-1.6467370; https://www.cbc.ca/archives/only-in-toronto-was-a-wild-garden-this-big-of-a-concern-1.5256131?cmp=apple-news_cbc-news; https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/london/naturalized-lawn-london-ontario-1.6484329
3 Municipal Act, 2001, SO 2001, c. 25.
4 Municipal Act, 2001, SO 2001, c. 25.
5 Same, s. 127.
6 Same, s. 128.
7 City of London, By-law PW-9, Yard and Lot Maintenance By-law, (13 October 2020) [Yard and Lot Maintenance By-law].
8 Yard and Lot Maintenance Regulation, art. 1.1.
10 By-law concerning the maintenance of yards and lots, art. 1.1 and 4.6.
11 City of Toronto, Toronto Municipal Code Chapter 489, Turfgrass and Prohibited Plants (October 4, 2021).
12 Same, s. 489.1.
13 Weed Control Act, s. 3.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.