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Shorewood Woman Headed to Court in Battle over Natural Lawn

Louise Quigley says she has been harassed by the village for three years over the prairie grasses in her front yard but officials say they continue to field neighbors' complaints.

When Louise Quigley moved into her home at the corner of North Maryland Avenue and East Jarvis Street more than two decades ago, she decided to convert her lawn into a prairie to deter children traveling to and from nearby schools from using her yard as a shortcut.

She didn't want to eat the cost of a new fence demarcating her property, and the environmental and ecological benefits of the prairie grasses and flowers accenting her Shorewood home were a plus.

“I put in some prairie grasses…purple coneflowers, goldenrods, milkweeds and butterfly weeds,” she said.

“They are less work, they come up every year, they are pretty. Native perennials have all kinds of environment benefits because the native plants feed the native bugs, feed the birds; it’s the bottom of the food chain,” she said. “You can promote the survival of our ecosystem and our biosphere if you plant native plants.”

However, about three years ago, as the village started to crack down on gardens in the parkway — the patch of grass between the sidewalk and the street — and mulling an ordinance banning food gardens in front yard, officials started enforcing an ordinance governing natural lawns.

Quigley joined the fight for front yard food gardens and was given a permit to plant in the parkway, but that's when the village started harassing her over her prairie grasses, she says. Officials say they were fielding complaints from neighbors about her out-of-control lawn.

Among the complaints to the village: The tall grasses crept onto the sidewalk, creating a tripping hazard for passers-by and creating a nuisance; the tall grasses blocked the view of motorists driving through the neighborhood; and it was unsightly.

Shorewood Planning and Zoning Administrator Ericka Lang says the village has received a steady stream of complaints about Quigley's lawn — about three a year over several years, though she added they don't track the complaints — and that her grasses violate the village's ordinance governing natural lawns, which says grasses can't exceed 6 inches in height.

"We need to enforce the natural lawn ordinance due to the number of complaints," Lang said. "It’s a touchy subject and there are a lot huge gray areas in this issue."

Quigley has asked to see the complaints but the village can't produce them, and says she has only heard residents express how much they love her natural lawn.

“Whenever I working in my garden I have neighbors come by and say how much they love my garden,” she said. “Somebody told me just this year, that she was walking and everything was quiet, and when she came to my garden, all of a sudden she heard crickets chirping."

While Lang says she has received thank yous from neighbors as the village has started to crack down on her lawn.

Three-year battle coming to head in court

Quigley has since posted a sign in her yard, and is circulating letters asking neighbors and passers-by to call village officials and inform them their natural lawn ordinance is archaic.

“I take walks around the village for exercise, so when I see a planting that looks like mine, I put a letter in the door,” she said.

Quigley's battle with the village will come to a head in municipal court during a pretrial hearing on Dec. 7, after she says he was fined for not cutting down the grasses, accidentally missed a court date, and then saw her fine increase. Her two fines equal nearly $600.

Lang says she was directed to have her grasses cut by the end of August and she failed to comply. Then she missed a court date.

Quigley says she'll attend court with her lawyer, hoping to strike a deal after agreeing to bring her lawn into compliance in exchange for her fines being reduced.

The battle over gardens and natural lawns has long been a topic of discussion in Village Hall, with a citizens' uprising gathering when the village talked of drafting an ordinance disallowing garden beds in front lawns.

The Victory Garden Initiative, headed by resident Gretchen Mead, launched a few years ago with residents planting Victory Gardens in their front yards all over the village. The increase prompted officials to revisit their approach to gardens in Shorewood. Mead explained in a .

Now, parkway plantings are only allowed by permit and food gardens in front yards are allowed, though the ordinance prohibiting grass higher than 6 inches is still in effect.

Quigley's yard singled out

Last summer, Quigley says Lang asked her to create a plan for her yard and she asked why when others aren't forced to change their natural lawns.

In August, the village then said in a letter to Quigley that her lawn was fine, but that it needed to comply with the lawn ordinance. Lang says the village isn't asking her to completely remove her natural lawn, but simply to cut her grass down a bit, so it's in compliance with the local ordinance and to remove the grasses toward her home four to five feet. Quigley's property starts about four to five feet after the sidewalk, with the area technically the public right-of-way. She has since replaced the prairie grasses with rocks in the public area.

However, natural lawns like Quigley's are still prevalent throughout the village, and in response to the August letter, she wrote back saying: "I just took a one hour walk around my neighborhood and here's a three-page list of addresses that have similar kind of plantings."

Lang acknowledges that the village hasn't been proactive or asked other homeowners to comply with the natural lawn ordinance. Lang added the village is focusing on Quigley's yard because of the slew of complaints.

Quigley added the ordinance is outdated and working off the aesthetics of the 1940s.

"(The ordinance) is about lawns and it isn't about native plant communities," she said. "It was drafted way back and wasn't about 21st century aesthetics or a 21st century ecological understanding. I don't have a lawn, I have a prairie. They are using a lawn regulation to harass me about my prairie."

Quigley says she hopes the long conflict ends with the village considering some changes to the rule.

"Maybe this finally produces enough outcry and enough outrage that the village gets through its collective head that they need to write an appropriate 21st century rule," she said.

paul peck December 02, 2011 at 01:13 PM
Thank you for the clarification bob. I do appreciate it. the doll on the stick and peoples perceptions of it is a red herring. a prairie lawn is not a prairie. it is a natural lawn in a suburban setting and there may be issues of land management different from lawn grass or a prairie. After all, on a prairie there is less intrusion from human civilization and natural cycles of balance. We understand about land management for lawn grass because it is customary, and certain norms regarding it, and we have come to accept the disadvantages of lawn grass as a custom too, so habitually that we cease to be aware of the harms we live with. the question of what is good land management for a natural lawn in a suburban setting really is common for both sides Louise believes that a natural lawn is good land management, and there are sound reasons for this. She certainly is aware that this is not the norm in a suburban setting. Lawn grass is customary, has relatively low maintenance, ie. litter often blows across from one yard to another before it is picked up. a natural lawn in a suburban setting may require more attention in picking up other peoples trash than a standard lawn. maybe there are considerations for better integration common to both side. lawyers seldom broker this kind of dialog.
paul peck December 02, 2011 at 01:22 PM
its a shame when a community offers no means for a dialog and for resolution as person has no other option but to excercise the right to resolve grievances in a court system. I don't think louise alone can be vilified for this as court may be the only forum available to try to initiate a dialog, and there are sound reasons why prairie grass is good land management in a suburban setting. There are sound reasons why managing a natural lawn in a suburban setting may require different sets of responsibilities that do not apply to standard lawn grass. yes, the polarity of one side verses another in a court setting often is an episodic struggle that is never about the core issues of the problem, but ultimately becomes a struggle for everything else that is unrelated.
Bob McBride December 02, 2011 at 02:36 PM
It may be a red herring, but you know that for those who oppose such lawns, they'll utilize that along with the garbage stuck in the grass itself as a reason to suggest that what's being discussed is actually a sloppy, unattended yard. It would take 5 minutes for her to get that stuff out of there and to possibly avoid having it used against her.
paul peck December 02, 2011 at 11:41 PM
I agree with you there bob. I would heed your advice as often red herrings are effective rally points even if a logical fallacy in themselves. I would also agree that the observations you have mentioned may be issues of what is appropriate responsibility to manage a natural lawn in a suburban setting.
Frank C January 20, 2013 at 02:15 PM
I used to have a vegetable garden in the backyard of my urban New Orleans home when I was attending college over a decade ago (I moved to Shorewood from the Big Easy). I never spoke to any of the neighbors in five years living there, and no one ever complained.

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