What to do when the ‘weed police’ knock on your door

| National News

In January, the Wild Lawyers published a model code to help address the ongoing issue of municipalities misunderstanding native plantings and their benefit to landscapes. 

The purpose of these model regulations (found here) is to establish codified minimum standards for the design, installation and maintenance of landscaped areas that require the use of appropriate native vegetation and to promote the preservation of indigenous plant communities on site. 

The ordinance is intended to be a minimum standard and/or a starting point for municipalities to incorporate native plant language and law to use in application for all types of public and private buildings, developments, subdivisions and land within the incorporated and unincorporated areas of a municipality.  

So, what should native plant owners do if the “weed police” knocks on their door? This article will give you a plan of action. 

First, above all else, don’t panic! Let me say that again—don’t panic! Don’t immediately become intimidated and cut all your native plants down. Instead, listen to local officials and hear what they have to say. Stay calm. Are they asking questions that neighbors have posed to the municipality? Are they giving you a warning? Do they have an actual citation for you? If so, what law/code/ordinance have you allegedly violated? This leads to the next step and question — show me the law! 

Second, if you are receiving a warning or an actual “ticket” because you have allegedly violated a local law/code/ordinance, ask which law you have broken. Ask for a written copy of your violation and the law it is based upon.  

A few years ago, I was accused of constructing a mailbox out of materials and in a location that was supposedly “illegal” in my county. A county official told me I was out of compliance and offered to remove my brand new, large cement mailbox. After a lengthy lecture from him, I simply asked to see the law I had violated. I also firmly — but politely —  told him I objected to his request to move the mailbox until I could review the law I allegedly had violated. 

Turned out there was no law at all, but an internal policy (one that citizens had no way of knowing) against mailboxes such as mine! The county official threatened to turn me into the county attorney’s office, to which I responded positively. In fact, the county attorney and I knew each other since I am an attorney in the area. I never heard from the county attorney and my mailbox is still right where it was when built. In short, you need to see the law/code/ordinance you are accused of violating to see if, in fact, you are guilty of anything. Does the ordinance define weed? If so, can you provide information showing that your native plants are not weeds? Perhaps the official is just visiting you because your neighbors don’t know your native plants are not weeds. Use the opportunity to educate your local official.  

This leads to the next step: find out who you need to contact and by what deadline or date. Use this contact person to educate your local community leaders about the value of not only your own native plants, but native plantings in general. I have assisted Wild Ones members and suggested they invite local leaders to tour their gardens and learn all the positive reasons why native plants should be incorporated into lawns, landscapes and public areas. Throw a neighborhood garden walk and invite others in your area for a glass of lemonade and a presentation about native plants, their stages of development and their benefits. With knowledge comes understanding and often peace with city officials and neighborhood busy bodies. 

If contacting your local officials and educating them doesn’t lead to the citation being dismissed, the next step is to know when you must appear in front of the court or city officials. Preparing for such a meeting should include reading your citation, knowing the local law involved and reaching out to professionals who can help. Experts in the field are helpful, such as the Wild Lawyers team. The WL team cannot represent you but can offer suggestions on how to handle the situation and resolve the matter amicably for all parties.   

Hopefully, contact with local community leaders may not only dismiss or clear up alleged violations of local law(s)/code’(s)/ordinance(s), but may lead to new understanding of native plantings. Take the opportunity to use the new model ordinance to set a precedent or update outdated local language regarding native plants and their use throughout the community. Does your area have a local Wild Ones chapter or a citizen’s group that addresses and educates about native plants? If not, this may be a great time to launch a Wild Ones seedling chapter or suggest the local municipality establish such a group with you as the leader. The more our communities know and understand native plants, the more they will become mainstream and accepted by homeowners and planted in publicly enjoyed common areas such as city parks, greenspaces and gathering centers.  

In conclusion, for native plantings to be more accepted, accessible and mainstreamed, community leaders and members must be educated regarding their use and benefits. Native plantings conserve resources such as water, reduce erosion and help mitigate against extreme and adverse climate change. It is time to change the culture and narrative of what is acceptable in home yards and gardens and public green spaces. No longer is turf grass and manicured parkways the only option, nor are they a smart use of our resources. Native plants will be the wave of the future if we emphasize their essential ecological value and resilience in our landscapes. 

Now is the time to look to our past – what grew prior to widespread development — for progress in the future. The new model native plant ordinance is just one step in this overarching mission we are all pursuing for the benefit of the environment.  

Native Plant Ordinance Resources

How to make friends with the “Weed Police” (Published 2023)
Sample Native Planting Ordinance (Published 2023)
What to Do if the Weed Police Knock on Your Door (Published 2022)

Rosanne Plante is a member of the volunteer Wild Ones lawyer team called Wild Lawyers. She is an attorney, mediator, lobbyist and the reigning Mrs. Midwest States Agriculture America 2022-23. She is also a member of the Wild Ones Loess Hills (Iowa) Chapter, and is a certified Iowa Master Gardener and Conservationist, and has been awarded 10 year and 500+ community service hours lifetime achievement awards. Connect with Rosanne Plante on Facebook and Instagram.

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