Charlottesville Requires Residents To Tell How Their “Natural” Garden Grows

Forum Watch Editorial

By. Neil Williamson, President

snow's flowersSpringtime means planting time in the Old Dominion.  The recent rains may have hindered some gardening plans but I anticipate there will be big crowds at the nurseries this weekend.

But be careful out there, if you wish to plant a so called “Natural Landscape” The City of Charlottesville Department of Neighborhood Services (NDS) is most interested in how your garden grows.

There’s a form, process and an enforcement mechanism for that.

Do you think your neighbors should have to sign off on the plans for your Natural Landscape garden?

The City does:

A Vegetation Management Plan (VMP) shall include at least the following details:

1. Two-week public posting of the proposed VMP so that the neighboring property owners are allowed an opportunity to comment on the VMP prior to approval.

So if you and your neighbor have a difference of opinion regarding the design and implementation of your garden they can provide their comments to NDS, who may, or may not, issue the permit to allow you to plant a natural garden on your property.

Further Charlottesville’s Standard Operating Procedure for Natural Landscaping requires:

A schedule for general maintenance, including appropriate means of discarding vegetative material, removal of dead trees and pruning of live trees as all these may affect the general public safety.

A plan to identify and manage native plant material as well as a plan to manage and eliminate noxious weeds.

It is recommended to include and maintain at least 80% species native to the mid-Atlantic measured by volume. Owner is responsible for being able to identify species, or have a landscape professional do so for them.

Changes to the VMP must be approved by the Property Maintenance Inspector and a revised/approved plan must be submitted for the file. Any VMP approval may be revoked at any time by NDS, if it can be shown that the agreement is not being followed, if the property has become a threat to health, safety or the environment, or if all required buffers are not adequately maintained.

dandylionTo understand the City’s interest in this issue, one must understand that the impetus for this legislation is the weed ordinance.  Local weed ordinances were enacted across the nation to protect the public from littered yards that could attract vermin or present a fire hazard.  The unintended consequence of said “weed ordinances” is that they have been used to prevent homeowners from practicing low impact natural landscaping.

Natural landscaping is defined as: “the practice of cultivating plants which are native to the bioregion without resort to artificial methods of planting and care such as chemical fertilizer, mowing, watering other than by through natural processes (rain), with the goal of harmonizing the landscape with the larger biotic community and ecosystem of the immediate and surrounding bioregion”.

A natural garden is “a smaller version of a natural landscape. In itsnatural landscaping most simple terms, it is a garden planned and designed to work with, rather than against, Nature.”

Considering Charlottesville’s reputation as being a green city, the Free Enterprise Forum was surprised to learn these regulations seem to be in direct conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent literature  regarding natural landscaping.

Citing a similar “permission” law in Madison Wisconsin, an EPA document states:

The Madison Ordinance requires the homeowner to file an application for a natural landscape and then obtain the approval of a majority of his neighbors. By expressly allowing natural landscapes, the ordinance represents a significant first step in the process of reversing the blight of truly environmentally harmful turf. The neighbor veto and the application and approval process, however, are unnecessary limitations on the right to naturally landscape one’s yard. These requirements also lead to a process of ad hoc “permission” to plant native plants and grasses. Finally, the premise of the Madison Ordinance is counterintuitive – why should natural landscapes be singled out as requiring permission when truly harmful landscapes remain unregulated? [Emphasis added – nw]

While we take some issue with the concept of “truly harmful” language we agree that property owners have rights.  Some may be surprised by the Free Enterprise Forum endorsement of natural landscaping options as a basic property right but we concur with the John Marshal Law Review regarding the regulation of landscaping design:

1. The ordinance should protect the fundamental right of residents to choose their own landscaping;

2. The ordinance should apply equally to all residents as well as the City. County and State. if possible:

3. Any restrictions in the ordinance should have a rational basis; i.e., a legitimate interest in public health, safety or welfare;

4. The ordinance must not legislate conformity or aesthetics nor allow residents of the City to exercise control over their neighbors’ landscapes;

5. The ordinance should not require the filing of an application, statement of intent or management plan; and there should be no review or approval process or fees assessed against residents who intend to engage in legitimate natural landscaping;

One of the challenges in local government is the constant need to revise ordinances to match the reality on the ground.  The benefit in the changes proposed above is that it could relieve residents and staff of an unnecessary and inappropriate burden in the planting and maintenance of beneficial natural landscapes.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

Photo Credits: Snows Garden Center, Virginia Tech

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