Draft letter to Council

Please select from the following passages, or create your own letter…but register your protest with Toronto Council to protect our civil rights, our environment, and the future health and well being of Toronto.  If you plan to make a submission to Council on this item, please let us know so that we can coordinate our allotted 5 minute presentations and ensure that Council is presented with a complete picture.  Persons wishing to speak must register with the City Clerk before 4:30 November 26, 2012

Dear Council:

Please re-iterate Council’s original request for a process to “pre-empt unnecessary and unwarranted charges” rather than simply removing the bulk of them from public view.

We ask that you restrict the role of the Licensing and Services Department to its mandated role of health and safety — removing all clauses related to garden design, size, location, plant selection, maintenance or aesthetics.  It is not the role of staff or Council to over-rule the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom by restricting our freedom to express our beliefs through our gardens unless  our choices pose a public hazard.  Please stop wasting tax dollars by deploying garden police.

“Natural Gardens” should not be singled out for special investigation.  There are generally far more invasive alien species and far more hazardous conditions in traditional gardens than in “natural” ones. A far more appropriate use of City resources would be to launch an educational campaign aimed at all residents concerning the problems posed by invasive species, including those commonly sold in Toronto, than the MLS Departments current approach of investigating individual yards one by one.

We can understand Council wishing to place judgement of private gardens in the hands of staff.  It must be very difficult to look residents in the eye and tell them that the gardens that they have nurtured and love, don’t meet with your approval.  It must be even more difficult to justify patrolling gardens at a time when Toronto’s legitimate police forces are facing curtailment.  Perhaps the goal of hiding this activity within internal departments is designed to protect the broader public from the knowledge that their tax dollars are being diverted to such inane pursuits?

A problem with the proposed approach is that virtually none of the gardens that have had to appeal charges under bylaw 489 actually violate it.  They seldom contain grass, let alone tall grass; and noxious weeds, should any at all be discovered would almost certainly be yanked out in horror by dedicated conservation gardeners.  Usually, MLS Officers simply deem that the gardens in question do not meet their personal aesthetic standards.  There is nothing in the staff proposal that indicates that future MLS rulings would in any way improve to “pre-empt the issuance of unwarranted and unnecessary bylaw violation notices”, as was requested by Council.

Few, if any, of the approximately 70 staff reports going before Toronto Community Councils over the past several years allege any health or safety violations; yet each of these has been forced to apply for an exemption to a bylaw they have not violated.  Under the proposed system the taxpayers that own these gardens would effectively be required to pay a fine of $200 despite not being guilty…again with no assurance that the law would prevail and their private property would be saved.

It’s unclear too how these properties have become lumped into a single “natural garden” category, yet, MLS staff assert  that they are somehow different to their eyes and they seem to feel the need to placate an un-named complainant.  If this report passes, staff could limit the extent and location of private gardens, and continue to monitor them even if no further complaints are lodged.  Different is not illegal.  Diversity stimulates community.

The opinions of these anonymous agitators, and the personal opinions of staff, should not take precedence over those of property owners.  As long as the garden does not pose a health or safety risk, it is not unlawful.  Garden design, even those that the current majority of residents may not appreciate, is a protected and crucial form of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  This protection has been upheld by Ontario courts and in other jurisdictions.  More often than not, the miscreant gardens actually are far more beneficial, or at least less harmful, than their more conventional neighbours.  .

Imagine the embarrassment of having the landscape that you enjoy and are working hard to develop, being charged with a municipal infraction; that infraction being posted on a public website; the added humiliation of having that unwarranted charge broadcast to all your neighbours; and then having to pay a hefty fee and take the time to defend charges that have no merit.  At committee, staff cited the single instance of repeated requests for exemption as cause for applying this fee against all innocent gardeners.

If residents do not feel safe to explore new directions, it is unlikely that the necessary mass needed to achieve significant environmental improvements in the city will ever be reached.  There are over 4000 acres wasted on grass boulevards alone within the City of Toronto.  Imagine the good that could be achieved, and the cost savings to be realized, if a mere fraction of privately held land was encouraged, or merely allowed, to convert to more useful pursuits than staff’s stated preference of lawn with maybe “a few flowers” [In answer to the question: “What’s natural?”: “Grass,” said Smithies. “And a few flowers, too, if they want. We don’t object to flowers.” Allan Smithies, Manager of Traffic Planning.  Toronto Star October 22, 2010.]

Which causes the greater harm:

  • the sight of stalks left to shelter overwintering pollinators or the polluting and disruptive leaf blower employed by those too lazy to use a rake and too obsessed to allow leaves to feed the earth?
  • a yard filled with layers of plants, native or not, that increase the infiltration of precipitation on site, reducing the strain on aging sewer infrastructure and on waterways; or a patch of flat useless green that gobbles up excessive volumes of municipally-treated water (the transport of which accounts for one of the city’s highest electrical usage), volumes of fertilizers, gallons of fuel and mandates the release of noxious fumes in the name of maintenance?
  •  a landscape that is devoid of life; or one that supports a myriad of wildlife from the smallest pollinators to the songbirds that feed their young on them?
  • a garden that causes people to pause and consider new concepts, to examine new (ancient) lifeforms, and opens discussions among neighbours; or a boring green mat that either requires the surreptitious application of pesticides or that hosts a wider range of “weeds” than that of the derided garden?

What City should Toronto be in the 21st century?  One in which its residents are encouraged to join the battle against climate change and species loss; or one in which the voices of the past overshadow the needs of the present?

Sincerely,

People concerned with the health and safety of planet earth.

by Janet Harrison (thelocalscoop.org)

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