Evanston’s Human Services Committee Monday night directed staff to rework proposed changes to an ordinance that would have required residents to pull up certain weeds from their yards and put them at risk of having the city file a lien against their property if they didn’t.

The controversy grew out of a conflict between two goals — minimizing undergrowth that may provide hiding places for rats — and encouraging the cultivation of beneficial plant species that traditionally have been considered to be undesirable weeds.

Mixed into the debate were questions about how much control busybody neighbors should have over a homeowner’s yard.

The city’s Environment Board sought to change the ordinance to protect plants like milk weed that provide a habitat for beneficial monarch butterfly larvae but are currently listed as subject to removal in the ordinance.

But apparently in drafting the ordinance changes the city’s legal staff didn’t check with the Health Department, which wants to see all weeds and grass cut back whenever there’s rodent control problem.

“This is wacky, this is crazy,” Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, said.

“If a group of volunteers want to dig up weeds,” that might be OK, Braithwaite said, “but for us to enforce that on a homeowner doesn’t make sense.”

“Where a property has overgrown grass, I’m just happy to see the lawn cut, rather than making an assessment of what’s a healthy weed,” he added.

Cicely Fleming.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she agreed. “If we’re concerned about rodents in overgrown grass, I’m all for that — but placing a lien on someone’s property is a little stretching it for me. If it’s a health issue, just mow it all down.”

Robin Rue Simmons.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, addressing a member of the Environment Board, said, “So what you’re asking is that the city not cut the good weeds? How are we going to surgically not address the ‘safe’ weeds?”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said she felt really uncomfortable about the proposal and the potential for establishing “weed police.”

Health Director Evonda Thomas-Smith said she understood the interest of the Environment Board, but from a public health sanitation standpoint she’s focused on trying to control rodents. If there are signs of rodents and the grass or weeds are over eight inches tall, she wants to see them cut — even “good” weeds — if they’re harboring rats.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said she agreed with the concerns about rodents — but absent a rodent problem, she wanted conscientious gardeners to be able to maintain desirable weeds, even if neighbors object.

A revised version of the ordinance is expected to come back for the committee’s review at its July meeting.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Weeds
    Another ridiculous example of Evanston leadership. Weeds? They seem to be growing…in our leader’s brains!

    1. The city can fine you $350
      The city can fine you $350 per day without much warning for violating the 6″ grass rule. This may ostensibly be to reduce rats but it’s more often used by anonymous neighbors to target properties that don’t meet their ideals with the false notion that uniformity improves or raises property values.

  2. Pound of Flesh

    Alderman Robin Rue Simmons comment “So what you’re asking is that the city not cut the good weeds? How are we going to surgically not address the ‘safe’ weeds?” brings to mind Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  Can we extract our pound of flesh without extracting a single drop of blood?

    I do appreciate that our officials are attempting to be forward-thinking.  Many of my neighbors cultivate their yards with native plants which used to be deemed weeds.  Of course this is going to create a situation where a neighbor sees weeds in another neighbors native flower border.  Sustainability and water conservation are playing a larger role in gardens today and the traditionally accepted flowers of our parents/grandparents are not always the ideals of today’s homeowner.  A big thanks to our city officials for recognizing the need for a broader ordinance.

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