Blue Ridge Naturalist: Saving the Bay, Part Two: The Solution—Changing Minds, Changing Lawns, and Changing Landscape

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© Marlene A. Condon

Read part one here.

Collecting water at downspouts helps to keep water on a property, but the amount is miniscule compared to what a nature-friendly landscape retains. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.
Collecting water at downspouts helps to keep water on a property, but the amount is miniscule compared to what a nature-friendly landscape retains. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

To address the deleterious effects of local runoff on the Chesapeake Bay, Charlottesville has instituted a fee system, which Albemarle County may soon emulate.

The City will charge citizens for the amount of impervious surface area on their developed properties. “Impervious surface area” is defined as “any surface coverings that do not absorb water, including roads, roofs, and parking lots.”

In other words, Charlottesville officials are making people pay for the impact of structures they require. Although you can and should limit the size of your dwelling, you do need a place to live. That means you probably also need a “road” (driveway) or a parking lot (if you live in an apartment) to access your dwelling, so you are being asked to pay a fee on necessities.

Because there is not much an individual can do to avoid needing these particular impervious surfaces, it does seem a bit immoral to assess a fee on them as if anyone has much choice. (The same is true for food—commodities such as meat, dairy, vegetables, and fruits—should never be taxed.)

However, because lawns are optional and highly detrimental in many ways to our environment in addition to contributing to storm water runoff, there would be absolutely nothing unjust about assessing a fee on the amount of lawn area on a property.

There is now a legitimate and compelling reason for government to encourage, via the power of taxation, the creation of more natural, and thus more environmentally friendly, landscapes that would not only make land in the Bay watershed more permeable, but also perfectly functional without the use of pesticides and excessive amounts of fertilizer.

What government should be doing is allowing a minimum square footage of lawn around the house and charging a fee for the amount of lawn area beyond that amount. The reality is that most lawns see little, if any, use and the only reason that most people have lawns is simply because it’s the accepted form of landscaping in our society.

A lawn could—and should—be replaced by whatever combination of flowers, wild grasses, vines, shrubs, and trees a landowner enjoys seeing. The idea that a lawn with a few plants here and there will function without problems is an idea born of ignorance.

There absolutely must be a variety of plants to support a variety of organisms because the critters are the ones that keep the environment functioning properly. For example, the animal activity that takes place in a nature-friendly garden is responsible for helping it to retain even heavy rain.

A natural area with large numbers of plants of different heights comprises a vast multilayered canopy that must have all surfaces dampened before a drop of rain even reaches the soil.

When a droplet does hit the ground, the soil will accept it because of the innumerable kinds of invertebrates living within the soil, aerating it with their activities. Additionally, most mammals either dig for food, tunnel through the soil, or make their homes underground, allowing water to enter the earth through the holes that they make.

Yet the unnatural landscape dominated by lawn that supports very little wildlife is favored by development covenants and city and county officials even though it is doomed to being problem-prone from the get-go. People, including government officials, must change their minds about what our immediate environment should look like. Abolishing “weed” ordinances and instituting a lawn tax would definitely be a start in the right direction.

When I’ve spoken with government officials about why they seem obsessed with limiting the height of grass and other plants in yards, the word “vermin” always comes up. Again, this is a display of the ignorance in society about our natural world. The word “vermin” is typically used as an excuse for people to kill particular animals that they fear or view as competitors, such as foxes, coyotes, rats, mice, and even hawks.

Right here in Albemarle County in the 1980s, hawks were shot and killed illegally as “vermin” on billionaire John Kluge’s estate. Coyotes are being killed nowadays with the approval of the Game Department, even though they offer a better way to keep deer populations in check than waiting for disease to take its toll (the means of last resort for Mother Nature when other population-control methods have failed).

It’s time for people to accept the fact that the consequence of eliminating predators is dealing with overpopulations of their prey. While government officials worry that mice and rats will be a problem if they allow citizens to create meadows around their homes, these animals are legendary for their abundance in big cities where there are no meadows—and few, if any, predators.

In Albemarle County, many suburban neighborhoods are governed by covenants that severely restrict the kind of landscaping that is allowed. People who live in these areas are going to have to decide whether they want to rescind the covenants so people can landscape in a more intelligent manner and not pay a tax, or whether they want to keep covenants in place and pay for the “privilege” of harming the Chesapeake Bay.

In the rural areas of Albemarle, supervisors must make a case to our state legislators to change laws to allow supervisors to give tax breaks to everyone who creates a nature-friendly landscape. Right now, only owners of large properties get huge breaks on real estate taxes—even though they aren’t usually doing a thing to help the environment or the Bay to be healthy!

People who grow grapes (please note that wine is not a necessity) pollute the landscape with pesticides throughout the growing season.

People who raise horses (again, not a necessity) tend to maintain a landscape that is every bit as manicured as a suburban lawn—and every bit as detrimental to our environment.

Some people own large tracts of open area that, if they can line up a farmer to cut hay, will get a tax break even though it would be far better for that land to be maintained in a natural state for the benefit of our wildlife.

We are losing numerous species of birds and other critters that need fields in which to reproduce—not a cut field that is, for all intents and purposes, just another, albeit larger, lawn. These animals have value, providing services that keep the environment in and beyond the field functioning properly.

It makes sense to give farmers a break on land assessments because they are feeding the rest of us. (However, even they should maintain some habitat for wildlife. Unfortunately, now days even farmers do away with natural areas.)

But what is the justification for allowing a break to owners of large tracts of forest? What is a 20-acre forest doing that a one-acre forest isn’t?

In point of fact, the one-acre forest protected from yet further development within an otherwise environmentally degraded subdivision is going to do far more to help that environment to function better than twenty contiguous acres elsewhere.

These regulations are not only senseless, they are also grossly discriminatory to most of the citizens in the county who pay far more in taxes on small pieces of property than do those who own much larger parcels.

The sad truth is that people refuse to recognize the true cost to our environment of maintaining unnatural landscapes. And, while well-intentioned, taxpayer-subsidized rain barrels and rain gardens are not sufficient to solve our problems.

What we need is an extreme makeover of our developed landscape. Otherwise, there can be no saving of the Chesapeake Bay.