The State We’re In: One Man’s Weed Is Another Man’s Wildflower

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Michele S. Byers

Michele S. Byers

by Michele S. Byers, executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation 

We all know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A work of art that I find breathtaking may be something another person would hide in their attic. A piece of music that brings a smile to someone else’s lips might give me a headache.

When it comes to art and music, most of us accept that there will never be a consensus and respect each other’s individual tastes. How about applying that rule to lawns as well?

A municipal court judge in Branchburg Township, Somerset County, recently upheld the right of a local couple to convert a low-lying portion their property from manicured suburban lawn to native wildlife meadow.

The homeowners, James and Sharon Girvan, decided to abandon efforts to grow a traditional lawn on part of their property. They wanted to reduce runoff pollution and improve water quality in the small brook at the rear of their yard.

The Girvans quit mowing and allowed native plants that thrive in seasonally flooded soil to take over. They also helped nature along by planting additional native species. In scientific terms, they created a native “riparian meadow.” But in one neighbor’s eyes, it was an overgrown collection of weeds.

In response to a complaint, the town’s zoning officer ordered the Girvans to mow their backyard to restore a more conventional suburban look. They refused, and were issued a summons for violating the township’s debris ordinance by harboring “obnoxious growths.”

When the case went to court, Dr. Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist, was called as an expert witness on the ecological benefits of native wildlife meadows and riparian buffers. He testified that in addition to preventing flooding, the meadow provides wildlife habitat, meets Natural Resource Conservation Service guidelines, does not need fertilizers or pesticides, and needs mowing only once a year in late fall.

In late November, Municipal Court Judge William T. Kelleher sided with the Girvans and Dr. DeVito on the benefits of riparian meadows.

The judge also agreed with Dr. DeVito that there’s no scientific basis to support the classification of plant life as “obnoxious.” Dictionaries define obnoxious as meaning “very unpleasant, objectionable or offensive.” There are such things as “noxious” plants, but that definition strictly refers to those that are poisonous, allergenic, irritant or invasive.

As Judge Kelleher noted, calling native plants obnoxious provides for “tremendous subjectivity and for the possibility of wide disagreement among reasonable people about aesthetic choices. There are simply no objective standards to apply to the facts in this case.”

In essence, the judge ruled that one man’s weed is another man’s wildflower!

Although the judge’s decision applies only to the Branchburg ordinance, it’s still great news for those who prefer native meadows to manicured lawns. There are tremendous benefits to native meadows, not the least of which is their attractiveness to a dazzling variety of birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife. Municipal officials across this state we’re in are now free to write ordinances that promote rather than prohibit native plant meadows!

To find out more about creating native meadows, visit Flemington resident Tama Matsuoka’s website at www.meadowsandmore.com. Tama, an expert forager of wild foods, provides information and inspiration to those who want more than a typical suburban lawn.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, go to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.


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