Kill Your Lawn – A Homeowner’s Guide to Navigating the Regulations and Ordinances of their City to Strengthen Localized Sustainability

Kill Your Lawn – A Homeowner’s Guide to Navigating Regulations and Ordinances to Strengthen Localized Sustainability

You step outside your front door every day.

To grab mail, to go for a bike ride, to walk the dog, meet up with friends, etc.

What do you see? Lampposts, sidewalks, two-way road. Maybe some garbage cans, a bit of leaves (detritus) and wet McDonald’s wrappers blockading the storm drain. Turf grass in immaculate shades of green in your neighbor’s yard, and his neighbor’s yard, and your yard. Non-fruiting deciduous trees casting dappled sunlight on grey, gum-stained concrete.

And then there’s that one crack in the sidewalk, been there for years, and the dandelions always find a home there no matter how many times you pay someone to spray it out of existence.

Dandelion Growing Through Concrete / Pavement
Lawn Chick invites a broad spectrum of professionals to contribute their insights and expertise to our ‘Expert Perspectives’ editorial series. Although the viewpoints expressed in these articles may not always reflect our own, we recognize the importance of presenting a diverse range of experiences and knowledge. Our hope is to offer these expert opinions as a valuable resource to you, our readers. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

Or maybe you don’t have a yard. It’s just a mossy brick stoop that pours you onto the sidewalk every morning and sucks you back in at night.

The cacophony of birds singing and swarming in the few trees they can perch (and nest) in wakes you up at the crack of dawn and you can’t help but trip over the newly poured concrete that’s trying to keep the old Oak tree roots at bay. Down the street, the trees make their age known by ridges in the sidewalk and in the road, making drivers curse at them until the city council eventually votes to cut them down.

Nature always finds a way, until it can’t.

Nature Finding a Way - Ecology

And that’s where you, Reader, come in. We are not saviors, we are symbiotes. This means that we must work within the bounds of our network and community to create a mutually beneficial environment.

So let’s get down to brass tacks. Urban sprawl, human convenience, overpopulation in regard to resource availability for any living creature, colonization, and capitalism all have had a devastating impact on our environment.

The average worker, who isn’t a millionaire, can’t do much to change human impact on the environment, knowing that it’s multi-million dollar corporations and private entities that cause the most damage and have the biggest negative impact, and need to make the biggest changes.

But small steps are still steps forward. People like you and me, who have less than a million dollars, can create a wave of positive impact by making small changes, together.

If you read Lawn Chick often, I’m sure you’re already aware of that.

And so, where exactly do we start? By learning what you can and can’t do!

Killing Your Lawn for a Sustainable Alternative? Look Before You Leap

If you want to kill your lawn and create a more ecologically friendly and biodiverse landscape in your yard, it’s tempting to just go for it.

But as nice as it would be to just start planting plants, there are rules in place we must abide by in order to avoid fines and the cost of removal.

Here is a basic process to help you navigate finding out where to begin:

Research Your Local Ordinances and Restrictions

The term AHJ means Authority Having Jurisdiction. The AHJ who guides landscaping requirements where you live could be one of five Scales of Authority:

  • HOA (your neighborhood, ex. Springbrook Estates, Romeo, MI)
  • Suburb or Historical District (your district, ex. Historical District of Arlington, WA)
  • City (Planning Department, ex. Seattle, WA)
  • County (Planning Department, sometimes small cities will defer to the County for requirements, ex. Iron County, WI)
  • State (Dept. of Transportation and Ecology, they often pass down requirements to the City and County after reviewing applicability from the International Code Council)

The reason there are so many variations of an AHJ is because each county and state has the right to codify, adopt, amend, or repeal code requirements set forth by the International Code Council (known as the ICC).

This is not the only International Council that governs Code, but it is the most appropriate one to reference.

How to Determine Your Authority Having Jurisdiction

You can figure out who your AHJ is by knowing if live in an HOA (do you pay a fee?) and if you live within city limits.

If you are not part of a Homeowner’s Association and do not live within city limits, then the County is your AHJ.

There is minimal likelihood your AHJ is the State unless you are a Public Entity looking to use Capital Funds.

Your Home Owner’s Association

Your HOA will typically be the most restrictive to deal with. In my experience, your best bet is to call the HOA Point of Contact (POC) to ask for emailed links to the information you need.

Research Your Homeowners Association (HOA) Restrictions and By-Laws

If you don’t like that, then you can locate your HOA’s rules by visiting their website searching for “Covenants” (example), “Bylaws”, “Design Standards”, or “Architectural & Landscaping Requirements” (example).

  • Do your due diligence to ensure compliance with your HOA. A homeowner in Lehi, UT, was instructed to remove ALL of his Xeriscaped front yard because it did not follow the landscaping guidelines of the HOA. He did the right thing to reduce his water use as much as possible, but it cost him more than it should have due to restrictive guidelines. Avoid the fine and update your landscaping later on in the future when the guidelines change.
  • If your HOA is not as forward-thinking as you like, I encourage you to become a member! Lead by example and show them the success stories of other Homeowner’s Associations that focus more on sustainability than immaculate green lawns. Don’t forget to mention how much money they’ll save by cutting down on maintenance costs.

Your City

Your City, depending on what state you live, will either have landscaping guidelines that have changed minimally over time, or will have updated its guidelines to be more sustainable and intersectional with utility management and biodiversity goals (like this page from Seattle Public Utilities).

Research City Ordinances and Landscaping Restrictions Before You Kill Your Lawn and Go Eco-Friendly

Most City guidelines will be a included in a downloadable PDF like Denver’s Design Standards. It is good to familiarize yourself with the Sections of documents like this, because Landscaping, Outdoor Construction, Lighting, Signage, and Setbacks/Buffer Zones are not located in the same sections, but you will need to ensure you stay in compliance with them if you are modifying or building in/near any of them.

I know it may be daunting for laymen, but, with practice, you can navigate these documents like a pro.

Cities like Denver are massive, so if you live in a smaller city, keep an eye out for the pages that make your life easier. These pages look like this, a compilation of documents you need for submittal and information you need for meeting the City’s requirements.

An important thing to note is that if you live in a Historical District, you may have very restrictive guidelines set, similar to an HOA, in order to maintain a cohesive appearance within the district. More on navigating this information below.

Your County

Your County will have it’s code published online, typically through sites like CodePublishing (here’s an example).

County-Wide Landscaping Regulations and Restrictions

Again, it may be overwhelming to navigate the Sections, Chapters, and Articles included in the code but if you practice, you’ll get the hang of it.

The typical place to search for landscaping requirements is in Chapter 20 – Supplementary Requirements.

Make sure to utilize the search bar, where you will get highlighted references in all Sections where your search word is found.

Searching Local Code and Ordinances for Landscaping Restrictions

You will also need to ensure you do not live in a Critical Area, a Shoreline or Wetland Buffer Zone, or any other specially designated Zone.

You can find this information by using those terms in the search bar. Another option is to locate and download a Zoning Map. They are LARGE documents so be sure to be patient while it loads, zooming into your location.

If you don’t know where to find it, type in “(your city) Zoning Map” and a link should pop up in the search results from your city website or a similar host.

Another fantastic resource for homeowners is knowing the information accessible through their local GIS website. For example, an interactive GIS website can sometimes (not always) provide you access to a Plat Parcel Map, a Survey, Historical Records, Zone, Floodplain Basin, Impaired Waterways, Market Value, Soil Tests, and/or Environmental Reports.

I encourage you to be curious and look for as much information as you can – what you plant in your yard can either Help or Hinder existing ecological conditions that get affected by occasional extreme weather events and daily human activity.

What To Do After You Find and Understand Local Restrictions

Now that you know who to contact and where to find information that Impacts the environment you live in, we move on to what you can do about it.

Research & Select Native Plants

The first thing I suggest is that you do some research into your native plants!

Incorporating Native Plants Into Your Landscape Design

A lot of states and counties have their own Native Plant Society, Audubon Society, Conservation Chapters, Fisheries Enhancement Groups, and Land Trusts.

Larger cities will have a Conservatory, Arboretum, Public Greenhouse, and protected Parks.

All of these organizations and locations will have ways to access the plant lists you need for your region.

Why Kill Your Lawn

Native Plants will have requirements as living beings:

  • Water needs
  • Sunlight needs
  • Soil and drainage needs
  • They will not typically need fertilization unless you’re planting them in a different kind of soil than they need with additives they are not used to.
  • Double check the USDA Hardiness Zone Map for where a plant’s zone is.

Native Plants are great at things you already need them to be great at:

  • Drought resistance
  • Fire resistance
  • Flood resistance and sometimes mitigation
  • Bug resistance
  • Easy Maintenance
  • Attracts Pollinators of all kinds (birds, insects, reptiles)
  • You typically will not need to irrigate your yard for Native Plants. Just be mindful of dryspells in the summertime. Even Native Plants can’t survive a summer with no rain.

How to Make Sure You’re Selecting Native Plants at the Nursery

Native Plants must be native. Watch out for buzzwords like “ornamental” and “non-invasive” – these are some sneaky ways to get you to buy plants that have been cultivated to be prettier and smell nicer than Natives, but have a non-beneficial impact on the environment.

How to Make Sure Native Plants Are Actually Native Plants and Not Look-Alikes

As a final note, make sure all plants and limbs maintain a 6” distance from your house and foundation wall. This air gap helps with insect infiltration and fire resistance. Cut back yearly, or as needed.

According to the Audubon Society, “Non-native plants are species that have not existed historically in one area but have been introduced due to human activities. Non-native plants don’t necessarily pose a threat to native plants…non-native plants may not support ecosystem health as well as native plants do.”

And lastly, (I know, finally!), keep in mind the various design techniques you can include regardless of what your HOA or City Requirements are.

Techniques I Recommend Reviewing As You Plan Your Project

Landscape Design Techniques to review, analyze for usability, scale down to your needs and apply as appropriate:

  • Permaculture Design
  • Stormwater Filtration
  • Aquaculture and Dry Beds
  • Rainfall Retention/Detention Ponds
  • Xeriscape Techniques
  • Bioswales
  • Companion Planting
  • Passive Heating and Cooling Design

Final Thoughts for Planning A Transition from a Transitional Lawn

If you find yourself in need of assistance, always reach out to someone who works in the Public Offices available to you, or a local landscaper, architect, or engineer.

There’s so much information accessible to the general public now (which is great), but it may be overwhelming to research and find what you need for your project (which can be a challenge).

The good news is that all the answers you need are waiting to be found if you take the time to sort through it. Not everything is convenient, and that’s ok.

My Advice

Go into this project clear-eyed.

Knowing it’s going to take time means you can also foresee the positive changes.

Keep your eyes on the goal that is motivating you to kill your lawn and move towards a more sustainable alternative. You’ll be prepared for the resistance and obstacles you may encounter along the way.

The birds will be happier when they have more places to nest.

The bees will be happier when they have more flowers to fall asleep in.

Bee Sleeping in Flower - Final Thoughts About The Benefits of Killing a Lawn and Replacing it with a More Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Solution

The plants will be happier when they are abundantly pollinated.

And you will be happier when you have fresher smells, a rainbow of colors surrounding your home, cleaner water cycling from your plumbing into the drains in the rivers and back into your public utilities.

It all starts with making an impact where we can, no matter how small that impact is.

Now go get your hands dirty!


McKenna Klein (they/she) is an hiker, activist, treehugger, knowledge seeker , and architectural designer with ADHD, focusing on sustainability, intersectional environmentalism, and color theory. They believe that the combination of culture, history, psychology, and accessible design can create the equitable spaces that communities need to support their localized economy and conservation efforts. McKenna spends much of her free time volunteering, training her deaf dog, eating new foods, drawing/painting/woodworking, gardening, and exploring the outdoors. McKenna is currently working on a micro-scale Water Cleanup Plan for the Impaired Waterways of WA state, a volunteer Draft Master Plan of Downtown Sedro-Woolley to enhance sustainability efforts and spotlight Indigenous and Settler histories, and receiving their WSU Naturalist Certification. You can learn more about McKenna's work at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *