With the combined and interrelated pressures of climate change, soil degradation, and the decline of pollinator species, individual property owners have increasingly been looking for solutions to tackle these problems. There has been growing interest in rewilding or naturalizing residential properties as a means of addressing these pressures on an individual level. We were recently interviewed on CBC’s London Morning to discuss the legalities of such efforts.
Simply put, rewilding is the act of returning your yard back to a naturalized state by planting native grasses, flowers, and pollinator-friendly plants. This could include the planting of native perennial grasses or golden rod, which can grow upwards of 5 feet in height.
In Ontario, efforts in this regard must be cognizant of the regulatory framework under the Municipal Act and relevant municipal by-laws, which permit municipalities to regulate property standards, including keeping lands clean and clear.
This post will provide a high-level overview of the legal framework that applies to efforts to naturalize or rewild properties. A companion post on “The Courts, the Constitution, and Naturalized Lawn” will examine relevant judicial decisions on the interaction between property standards by-laws and naturalization.
Municipal Regulation of Property Standards
The authority to regulate lawn maintenance is granted in section 127 of the Municipal Act. This section provides that a municipality may “require the owner or occupant of land to clean and clear the land, not including buildings, or to clear refuse or debris from the land.” As section 127 of the Municipal Act confers authority on individual Ontario municipalities to define the meaning of clean, clear, refuse, and debris there is a patchwork of municipal property standards by-laws across the province taking different approaches to naturalization and rewilding.
Section 128 of the Municipal Act grants further authority to individual municipalities:
[...] a local municipality may prohibit and regulate with respect to public nuisances, including matters that, in the opinion of Council, are or could become or cause public nuisances, and it is the opinion of Council that the failure to clear refuse and debris from land is a public nuisance, including the spread of vermin.
Accordingly, if a number of city councilors prefer the classic aesthetic of a short all-grass lawn, this bias will guide the municipality’s by-laws and enable more strict regulation against rewilding.
The City of London’s Yard and Lot Maintenance By-law
By way of example, the relevant by-law in London is the ‘Yard and Lot Maintenance By-law,’ which is defined as “[a] By-law to provide for the filling up, draining, cleaning and clearing of land, and clearing of refuse from land.”
The property standards established in London’s by-law apply to both back and front yards. The by-law requires ‘owners’ of land, including lessees and occupants to “keep his land clean, cleared and free of refuse.” To “clear”’ land is defined in the by-law as “the removal of weeds or grass more than 20 centimeters.” Further, “refuse” is defined as including ‘domestic waste,’ which is any article, thing, or matter that appears to be waste material, including “grass clippings, tree cuttings, brush, leaves and garden refuse.”
While Londoners must keep their lawns free of weeds and grass over 20 centimeters, neither “weeds” nor “grass” are specifically defined within the by-law. Enforcement of the by-law could order the removal of intentionally planted pollinator-friendly flowers, perennials, or native grasses, treating those plants as weeds or grass more than 20 centimeters.
However, London’s property standards by-law provides exemptions to the “clean and clear” requirement for “wildflower meadows,” “perennial gardens,” and “naturalized areas,” as long as there is a mandatory “buffer strip” of at least 0.9 meters wide to delineate 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 reproducing population of native species.
- A “perennial garden” is defined as an area “deliberately implemented to produce ground cover, including wildflowers, shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses or combinations of them.”
The City of Toronto’s Turfgrass and Prohibited Plants By-law
By contrast, Toronto’s yard maintenance by-law takes a different approach. Chapter 489 of the Toronto Municipal Code, ‘The Turfgrass and Prohibited Plants By-law,’ was amended effective January 1, 2022, to require Torontonians to cut the “turfgrass” on their lawns when the growth exceeds 20 centimeters. “Turfgrass” is specifically defined as “[g]round cover of various perennial grasses grown for lawns, of a type that forms a dense, uniform turf if mown.”
While the Toronto by-law also requires private land to be kept clear of “local weeds,” it specifically defines those weeds in Schedule A and includes common buckthorn, dog-strangling vine, garlic mustard, phragmites, poison ivy, and others. The Toronto by-law also expressly incorporates and maintains the regulations 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 are harmful to human and ecosystem health. For example, poison ivy is a noxious weed because of the harmful rashes it causes to humans. Further, garlic mustard and purple loosestrife are noxious because they are invasive species which overcome forest floors and choke out native plants.
Pursuant to section 3 of the Weed Control Act, “[e]very person in possession of land shall destroy all noxious weeds on it.” Therefore, if an occupant has noxious weeds or seeds on their land, they can be ordered by the municipality to destroy these weeds. Individuals should stay educated on which plants are classified as noxious weeds and maintain a yard free of these plants to be compliant with the Weed Control Act and minimize the possibility of by-law enforcement visits.
It is important to note that many municipalities across the province have far more restrictive property standards by-laws than London or Toronto. Many municipal by-laws continue to include a strict mandate on keeping yards clean and clear, including removing grass and weeds over a certain length, without exception for naturalized areas or wildflower meadows.
As every municipality has its own by-laws, landowners should review the relevant by-laws or seek legal advice about the applicable property standards in their areas.
Our companion post will consider how courts have interpreted restrictive municipal property standards by-laws.
 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