Nov. 5—MANKATO — New and amended rules governing residential and commercial landscaping in Mankato are set to take effect later this year after the proposed ordinance generated no comment from the City Council or the public.
It was a marked contrast to the north side of the Minnesota River, where North Mankato residents and city officials spent most of a year debating and disagreeing on how yards should be regulated.
“Most of the language was in the ‘housekeeping’ category,” said Mankato City Manager Susan Arntz. “So those who would have reviewed it, I think they would be surprised the language wasn’t already there.”
But the amendments clearly reflect the changing nature of residential properties as some nature lovers move away from the traditional carpet of mown grass.
Soon to be gone is the section titled “Weed Elimination,” which prohibits grasses, as well as weeds, if they are 12 inches or taller or are about to go to seed.
Not only did that language make prairie landscapes illegal, it encompassed the large clumps of ornamental grasses that are increasingly popular in commercial and residential landscaping.
“With the current language, they don’t technically comply,” Arntz said.
Even as more leeway is granted to Mankatoans and their green thumbs, the new ordinance has a long list of rules. In a somewhat philosophical opening paragraph, the new “Maintenance of Vegetation” section of the ordinance talks about seeking the right balance.
“It is determined that keeping the city free of tall grass and noxious weeds improves the quality of life of city residents by improving the aesthetics of the city, by eliminating harbor for rodents and insects, and by eliminating fire hazards,” the ordinance states.
“At the same time,” the ordinance continues, “it is recognized that requiring the mowing of grasses is under certain circumstances impractical and unreasonable, and the exemptions within this section are intended to cover these circumstances. The City also acknowledges that a variety of properly maintained landscapes within the city add diversity and a richness to the quality of life, and does not want to discourage the preservation, restoration and maintenance of diverse biologically stable natural plant communities or environmentally sound practices.”
The new ordinance retains the 12-inch maximum height for traditional lawn areas but provides exemptions to mowing grass and “non-noxious weeds” in a wetland or wetland setback area, in a natural woodland, within 50 feet of ponds and streams, and on steep hillsides.
It also specifically exempts from the 12-inch rule ornamental grasses and flowering plants, so long as they don’t obstruct the views of drivers at intersections.
For folks looking to transform their yard into a prairie setting or other natural landscape, the ordinance allows it but requires they obtain a permit.
To receive the permit, property owners will need to sketch out their vegetation plans, which must include a 3-foot border of lawn or other low-height plants along property boundaries.
The permit also requires a list of plants that will be installed, along with a management and maintenance plan that includes strategies for the elimination of invasive vegetation.
“It doesn’t create the ability for people to just let their yard go wild,” Arntz said.
At a public hearing last week, no one rose to speak. And council members had no comment or questions prior to passing the ordinance, which will be effective 30 days after its publication on the legals page of The Free Press.
In North Mankato, numerous residents argued in opposition to a “natural yards” ordinance passed in 2021. There were objections to the larger 10-foot setbacks for natural yards in that city and claims that the ordinance had sloppy language, was being pushed through too quickly and favored traditional turf lawns.
The debate there was also amplified by a long-running dispute between a resident with natural vegetation in his backyard and city officials, who declared the property a nuisance and ordered it to be cleaned up. Several residents sided with the property owner, as did the Minnesota Court of Appeals when the man mounted a legal fight over the nuisance declaration.