Free Gardens, Leash Lawns

Dear Members of Toronto Council,

The proposal to waste more tax dollars to communicate to the public the rationale for charging a fee to individuals forced into defending private gardens, simply exemplifies the need for Council to insist on the re-examination of the original Council request – which was to find a way to preempt the unnecessary and unwarranted issuance of violation notices.

The $200 fee, while an outrageous violation of process, was never the primary issue.  The initial intrusion into personal choices was and remains the crux.   Unless there is clear evidence of health and safety concerns, there is no need for municipal staff to intrude onto private property.  Instead of staying within their mandated role of investigating safety concerns, the Licensing & Standards (MLS) Department have become self appointed garden aesthetics police – despite their admitted lack of qualifications for that role – wasting an enormous amount of staff time and City resources, unduly inflating the MLS  budget, and forcing residents of Toronto to take the City to court in order to defend their Charter-protected rights to work toward restoring the earth starting in their own yards.

Receiving a notice of violation is a tremendous cause of distress in and of itself.  In some cases, subject gardens remain under threat for over a year or are never notified that the case against them has been dismissed at the staff level.    In one notable case, an elderly woman having volunteered in City-sponsored restoration activities for decades and having purchased her garden plants from the City itself through the High Park native plant sales; received a Long Grass and Weeds complaint in February while the garden was dormant.  Please note, that as a dedicated native plant enthusiast, she had no lawn and therefore no turf grass tall or otherwise.  There was never any suggestion that she had any prohibited or hazardous plants, yet she was still put through months of anxiety as her tiny yards were inspected multiple times by staff of both the MLS and Parks Departments, before the issue was finally placed before Community Council for appeal — only after she had been forced to cut foliage which had dared to dangle over the edge of the sidewalk.   In most areas such vegetative dalliances would be considered charming, but in Toronto the possibility of pedestrians brushing against a flower is apparently a public hazard.

A “natural” garden of 200+ species of native plants cut to the ground without notice at the direction of Toronto’s MLS Department. Despite an ongoing lawsuit relating to that action, and the MLS department’s knowledge that it lacks turf and prohibited species, this garden is facing charges for a third time.

There are hundreds of additional instances where residents have been illegally forced by staff into making alterations to their private gardens based simply on staff preferences rather than any regulated defects or safety concerns. There are many others where staff has recommended against approval of a garden – despite it not having violated the bylaw – forcing the resident to proceed to Community Council rather than give up their right to choose how to manage their private property.  These champions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and of Toronto’s ecological health, will now be hit with a $200 fine upfront…which is in no way mitigated by the chance that an untrained Community Council will recognize, in the face of staff rebuttal, the violation of the resident’s rights and refund that fine.

In July 2012, Council quite rightly requested a method to preempt the issuance of such violation notices.  Staff responded with a supercilious proposal that entirely ignored that request and simply removed the issue from the view of the public and Council while increasing their control over private yards – again without any violations being proven.  The unnecessary and unwarranted stress on individual residents receiving these threatening notices remains.   The damage to the conservation garden movement remains.   The damage to City coffers increases.

Please re-open this issue.  Regardless of your personal preferences in gardening styles, recognize that the City’s rights over private property is limited to health and safety concerns and request that staff actions be limited to that area.  This will save Toronto multiple thousands of dollars in direct staff re-deployment and many thousands more indirectly as additional gardens are no longer discouraged from  absorbing storm water in situ, eliminating the use of municipally-treated water, reducing pollution, improving the environment, public health, and joining in all the other myriad benefits that radiate from creating more vibrant, sustainable, communities.

Wasted Chances

Neighbours do not have a right to impose their preferences on how others design their yards…especially when the choices made by those others are far more beneficial to the environment than lawn.  Nor should City forces be used as hired bullies to enforce conformity to out-dated standards.  Allow yards to become different, more creative, and yes, sometimes perhaps a little messy…it is far preferable than adhering to the status quo of miles upon kilometres of useless, wasteful, environmentally and socially harmful lawn.

Edible Arrangements –

There are thousands of acres of private yards in Toronto that could, with a little encouragement, be put to productive use.  This was recognized in the Urban Agriculture Report recently received by Council.  This was recognized by Ontario Courts which examined cases against Toronto gardens under the light of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  This is recognized in Toronto’s Green Plan, in its Wet Weather Flow Master Plan, in the TRCA Healthy Yards program and countless other City initiatives.  When will the MLS department and Council recognize it?

A garden neglected by its owner and by MLS staff who failed to investigate it.

If staff cannot be trained to recognize the difference between neglected and “natural” and cannot be made to understand basic civil rights, their powers over private yards should be removed not increased.




All those dedicated to restoring the health of planet earth

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