Nature Violates City Code

City's green goals conflict with its ordinances

Laura Croteau's Coronado Hills yard serves as a certified Wildlife Habitat, but the city says her sunflowers are in violation of city code.
Laura Croteau's Coronado Hills yard serves as a certified Wildlife Habitat, but the city says her sunflowers are in violation of city code. (Photo by John Anderson)

Nature is not always neat, a fact growing more apparent as environmentally aware homeowners seek ever-wilder alternatives to the closely trimmed lawns of modern suburbia. Neither, however, is city government, judging by the experience of one Coronado Hills resident who has found herself pulled in two directions between the city's push to become greener and its long-standing policies on tidy neighborhoods.

On May 25, Laura Croteau received a letter from the city's Code Compliance Department saying her yard violated city ordinances. Yet on May 9, just two weeks earlier, she'd received a letter from staff at the city's Wildlife Austin program telling her that she had "a beautiful yard [that] would be perfect to showcase." At issue is whether Croteau's corner lot is an officially recognized haven for wildlife, an overgrown tangle, or both. Since buying the house four years ago, she's spent almost $10,000 on landscaping. "I have consciously planted low-water-use plants and plants that provide food for wildlife, from nectar on up to fruit and nuts," she said. In 2009, she applied successfully to the Nation­al Wildlife Federation to have her yard certified as a Wildlife Habitat. Certifi­ca­tion involves providing four key components to attract and maintain wild animals: food, water, cover, and nesting places to rear young. Since replanting her garden, Croteau has seen an increased number of lizards, small mammals, and hummingbirds.

As it turns out, however, her sunflower bed is a problem. Even though sunflower seeds provide an ideal food source for many songbirds and mammals, Croteau said Code Compliance staff told her they are creating a "blind corner." Under city code, plants within 10 feet of the curb line and 40 feet of a corner must be less than 2 feet tall. Croteau said she was told to remove the sunflowers and trim her wildflowers; she was also instructed that her bushes need to be in "defined and maintained beds, and that I have to cut them all back and shape them." If she fails to comply, she could be charged with a class C misdemeanor for violating the city ordinance and face a fine of up to $2,000 – four times the maximum fine for a state class C misdemeanor.

While there are more than 150,000 Wild­life Habitats nationwide, support for the program in Austin is a matter of city policy. In 2007, then-Mayor Will Wynn, future Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and Council Member Mike Martinez sponsored a resolution to get the city certified as a National Wildlife Federation Habitat Community; we're now one of only two certified communities in Texas (along with the tiny Hill Country community of Whitewater Springs). The certification process includes education, setting community goals, and getting schools, public places, and homes like Croteau's certified.

The city's Parks and Recreation Depart­ment and Austin Water both actively promote planting native species instead of lawns, ensuring a more animal-friendly environment, less water usage, fewer emissions from powered lawn mowers, and fewer pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to leach into the water supply. City spokesman Kyle Car­vell said those environmental concerns are the priority issues when Parks and Rec staff are thinking about helping homeowners reach certification. "If those individuals were going out there to see if this property is going to be designated a Wildlife Habitat," he said, "they're not heavily considering any code compliance."

It is not just the seemingly contradictory messages from different offices that upsets Croteau; it's also what she sees as an unequal application of the law. She gave the Chronicle photographs taken in her neighborhood, arguing that they show clear violations of the same rules at other properties, but no one is enforcing the city statutes there. The problem is that the code enforcement system in Aus­tin is triggered by anonymous complaints – if no one files a complaint, nothing happens. With only 36 code enforcement investigators covering the entire city, the department has adopted a policy of responding to complaints rather than hunting for problems. Carvell said: "We believe the current process works well. Residents can call 311 any time day or night and report a suspected violation, then staff will go out there and investigate."

Carvell said this kind of clash between the program and the ordinances is unusual, but when Croteau contacted park ranger Taylor Jones on May 25, Jones told her, "From what we've heard, you're not alone." Croteau says she's seen plenty of other violations at other corner lots, but the only property to be similarly targeted in her neighborhood is actually her previous house, which is also Wildlife Habitat certified. That house wasn't cited for an obstruction violation, however, as it is not on a corner. "I find it interesting," Croteau said, "that the only other property that was complained about was one that also had a Wildlife Habitat sign."

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