Smiths Falls couple fight bylaw order to clean up their naturalized yard

Last fall, Smiths Falls, Ont., couple Craig and Beth Sinclair began receiving complaints about their naturalized yard from their neighbours. The complaints were soon followed by visits from town bylaw officers. Then, in October, they were hit with a violation notice and ordered by the town to clean up their yard.

Rather than a typical, manicured grass lawn, the couple had made their property wildlife-friendly by planting native species of trees, shrubs, and plants and including materials like deadwood. Naturalized or rewilded yards increase biodiversity and support pollinators, which reduces climate change impacts.

Neighbours’ complaints about the couples’ property focused primarily on how it looks; one of the main concerns was the deadwood. But these kinds of decaying logs provide nesting spaces for pollinators and resting places for birds. In fact, having these logs is encouraged by programs such as PollinateTO, an initiative that funds the creation of responsible pollinator gardens in Toronto. 

The Sinclairs hired Toronto lawyer David Donnelly to represent them and to help them fight back against the town’s orders. They first fought the decision in front of the Smiths Falls Property Standards Committee, but had little success. The couple filed an appeal with the Ontario Superior Court—shortly after they notified the town of the appeal, the Sinclairs were told that the bylaw order was being rescinded.

Donnelly isn’t surprised by the outcome and wants to reassure folks who have naturalized yards that the law is on their side. If you’re planning on growing a rewilded garden, make sure the yard poses no safety hazards, such as noxious weeds, and that you’re intentional with species composition. “As long as there is some environmental ethic, then you are protected by the Canadian Constitution,” he says.

“We identify orderliness, cleanliness, and prosperity with that rectangular grass lawn with a few flowers sprinkled in.” Donnelly thinks we need to outgrow this outdated mindset, and that frankly, we have no choice given the state of the climate. “We should be planting trees on just about every square patch of earth that we can find, and if you’re not doing that, then you should be planting pollinator habitat—but preferably both,” says Donnelly.

After representing professor Nina-Marie Lister, who runs the Ecological Design Lab (EDL) out of Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), in 2020 in a similar case, Donnelly Law collaborated with the lab to draft a model bylaw for biodiversity. Donnelly encourages people facing similar issues to bring forth the model bylaw to their town council and use it as an example of how standards could be revised to support the responsible growth of naturalized gardens. The EDL has also developed an FAQ sheet that people can reference if they find themselves in this situation. 

In response to the case, the town of Smiths Falls has launched a survey to garner interest in reshaping the property standards bylaw. However, both Donnelly and the Sinclairs feel the questions are framed in a way that portrays naturalized yards as negative. They have expressed their concern in a letter to the town, stressing that, though things need to change, a fair approach must be taken. 

Smiths Falls’ mayor, Shawn Pankow, says that public input is a common part of the bylaw-revision process, but that it won’t be the sole resource used in creating the policy. The town will also consider examples of how others have approached naturalization, such as the city of Toronto. Pankow says the revised bylaw will include guidelines for naturalized yards, and that “it’s simply a matter of ensuring that it reflects the intent and spirit of the community.” 

“The Sinclairs have done us all a great favour,” says David Donnelly; “they’ve blown the whistle, and I know that other municipal governments, mayors, and councils are taking notice.” Pankow also recognizes the broader intent of the Sinclairs’ advocacy for change, and hopes to come up with a solution that can act as a model for other municipalities. “What happens in Smiths Falls can lead to change elsewhere,” says Pankow.

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