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NORTH MANKATO — The city of North Mankato is open to changing around a proposed ordinance to regulate so-called “natural lawns” and pollinator gardens, but some critics say city officials could do with less rules.

That was the crux of the debate Wednesday night as about 10 residents met with North Mankato officials and Randy Schindle, a private land specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in a public forum on pollinator plants and the proposed code.

The proposed policy would formally allow pollinator gardens in North Mankato. Though the city has expressed support for pollinator gardens in recent years, its ordinance is vague on what’s allowed and how to regulate them.

A recent abatement case where a North Mankato resident let a natural lawn become overgrown caused city officials to review what codes they have, and to prompt a means to allow natural lawns while regulating them at the same time.

“We’re in support of this, but we need to balance all sides,” Community Development Director Mike Fischer said. “We have people who aren’t as passionate ... about prairies.”

The city in the past didn’t enforce rules for or against pollinators unless neighbors complained. The North Mankato Planning Commission reviewed a proposed code based on the city of Moorhead’s policy last month, but ultimately tabled it to gather more information and feedback on natural gardens.

Under the proposed code, residents would automatically be allowed to have a pollinator garden or natural lawn, meaning plants that could grow more than 6 inches tall, on 30% of their property or 250 square feet, whichever’s smaller. The lawn would have to be set back at least 5 feet from the property’s sides, and 10 feet from the front or back of the property.

Residents who want to cover their yard with plants would have to submit an application to the city, without a fee, that would include a site plan and whatever plants they planned to have. Those residents would also have to send or give copies of the application to neighbors within 200 feet of the property in question, as well as collect their neighbors’ signatures certifying they received the copies.

If more than 25% of neighbors object to the application, it would go before the planning commission.

Critics argue that policy is too broad and doesn’t do a good job of defining what types of plants or garden plans could be considered a pollinator garden or a natural lawn, or a process to decide what’s appropriate. And they believe the requirement to ask neighbors’ permission to install a larger pollinator garden infringes on residents’ property rights.

“Your yard doesn’t have to look like Bluff Park to be pollinator-friendly,” resident Bess Tsaose said.

Tsaose has advocated for pollinator habitats for years in part because the plants help Minnesota’s bee population. She said a few other Minnesota cities such as Mankato and Maplewood have few rules concerning lawns that appear to work well, but none appeared to have as many rules as North Mankato’s proposal.

North Mankato resident Tom Hagen said he was opposed to any codes on the matter, calling it a solution in search of a problem. He said there was little chance city officials could write a code that would be specific enough to address all complaints. Any such code would likely be difficult to enforce if more residents decided to start a natural lawn, he argued.

Schindle appeared to remain neutral in the debate and said his comments weren’t representative of the DNR’s stance on pollinator policies. But he pointed out the city needed some measure to hold people accountable for letting their lawns devolve, and many such codes are done to regulate the 1% of residents who cause issues.

Barb Church said she had misgivings about asking neighbors for permission to have an expanded natural lawn, especially as she lives near an apartment building and could have to ask all the residents in that complex to continue planting her garden.

Nancy Goodwin, a member of the city’s Greenways Advisory Committee, said the debate will likely spur more interest in pollinator gardens and could lead to more city participation in encouraging natural lawns.

“I’d like to see a deep access to resources, and access to people in town who are willing to volunteer to help you lay out your garden ... in the hopes that we minimize the unkempt lawn situations,” Goodwin said.

But Tsaose said the process itself has become frustrating for residents who favor natural lawns. She said the proposed code made her seriously consider selling her home after 30-plus years in North Mankato.

“I feel like I might as well rip out the plants, post a for-sale sign in front of my house and go move somewhere else,” she said.

Fischer said the city would continue to gather input from residents throughout the winter. He hoped North Mankato officials would have a policy in place by the spring in case residents wanted to start planting natural lawns.

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