Environmental advocates in Louisville are raising concerns over a section of the county-wide property maintenance code that restricts native plant growth — and the code’s disproportionate enforcement in majority-Black neighborhoods. 

Some city officials have joined in their calls for change, including Allison Smith. She’s assistant director of Louisville Metro’s Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability. 

“When you look at the way the ordinance is written, it is very focused on maintaining a turf grass lawn right, that is the standard here, across the country of what most people consider a yard should be,” Smith said.

She added native plants are beneficial to the environment, whereas turf grass lawns are not.

“Turf grass yards usually include pesticides, herbicides to keep down weeds. People don’t like the dandelions that pop up even though those are actually the first food of the spring that bees are able to eat,” Smith said. 

Kentucky has hundreds of native plants, including the coral honeysuckle vine which has trumpet-shaped flowers, different types of milkweed plants that can grow up to three feet tall and false blue indigo, a shrub that kind of looks like lavender. 

They offer various benefits, like reducing floodwater and supporting species like honey bees, butterflies and native birds to promote more diverse habitats. 

Maria Gurren is president of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association. Last year, she redid her yard to prioritize native landscapes. 

“I have seen an increase in birds, butterflies, bees, you know, pollinators. I even had a hummingbird that was a regular for a couple of weeks in the summer,” Gurren said. “Even just in my very small backyard of a shotgun house in Shelby Park, getting rid of grass and planting native plants, I immediately saw a change in the ecosystem.”

But, to the untrained eye, native plants may look unruly. And, technically, they violate a section of Jefferson County’s property maintenance code that says plants should be less than 10 inches tall, in an effort to promote manicured lawns and keep weeds and grass from becoming overgrown.

Residents and environmental groups like Louisville Wild Ones and Beargrass Thunder have been advocating for changes to the weeds ordinance for years. Now, District 4 Council Member Jecorey Arthur and Metro Council President David James, both Democrats, are proposing to do just that. 

“The beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Arthur said. “We can’t say we have these goals for the next few years to change our city and make it more environmentally just and then on the other hand, turn around and fine residents trying to grow native plants in their own yards.”

The proposed changes clearly define acceptable native plants and ways people can grow them. 

“I don’t think this one ordinance by itself is going to fight back on discriminatory practices from the mayor’s administration or the executive branch and how they implement ordinances,” Arthur said. “What it will do is set a precedent for us to say, ‘Hey, this is allowed, that is allowed.’”

Smith, with the city’s sustainability department, said the clarifications leave little room for personal judgment.

“Actually having it in the code defined is going to help both city codes officers do their job and also provide guidance to people who want to encourage native plants,” Smith said. “The allowance to go above 10 inches does not apply to turf grass lawns, you cannot just let your grass grow and call it native … Secondly, these plantings have to be managed and maintained.”

Mariah Corso co-owns Beargrass Thunder with her fiance, Jody Dahmer. It’s a native plant nursery and media company that aims to increase biodiversity in Louisville through gardening education.

She said she’s concerned about the city’s enforcement of this ordinance, which can stem from anonymous tips. The system also doesn’t set a limit on the number of calls a complainant can make.

“That’s a huge negative to the property maintenance code,” Corso said. “Realtors and property owners, landlords etc. weaponize the weeds ordinance against our neighbors.”

Fines start at $100 and can add up to $1,500. For homeowners, stacked fines could lead to liens on a property, with the city eventually seizing it for auction. While the city holds property owners responsible for managing a dwelling, some renters have landscaping responsibilities written into their leases. For them, repeat violations could be grounds for eviction. 

Corso said she thinks majority-Black and gentrifying neighborhoods face the greatest risk of targeted complaints. She shared a YouTube video in which a local real estate investor walks viewers through how to find properties that have been cited for code violations.

In 2021, Louisville Metro’s Department of Codes and Regulations issued 21,599 property maintenance citations. Nearly half of them — 10,513 — originated in four majority-Black ZIP codes.

Louisville Forward Spokesperson Jody Hamilton said the code lumps some property maintenance violations under the same umbrella, so there isn’t data available specifically on weeds-related citations.  

“The violation that is used to track weeds is our most cited violation and covers weeds, overgrown plants, and rubbish and debris,” Hamilton said in an email. “If you look at the ZIP codes with the highest rates of violation, those are also neighborhoods with higher numbers of vacant and abandoned properties.”

Advocates consider the proposed ordinance changes to be a great feat. However, Gurren with the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association said she’s concerned some new requirements  could single out some residents. 

To cultivate a native garden, one would need to have an opaque fence or five-foot buffer zone between these plants and the right of way or a neighboring yard. 

“That’s definitely an equity issue,” Gurren said. “In neighborhoods like Shelby Park and neighborhoods that are more likely to be found in the urban core of Louisville, that buffer really limits the ability of residents of those neighborhoods from fully being able to take advantage of some of the changes of this ordinance.”

Dahmer with Beargrass Thunder echoed Gurren’s worries and said he doesn’t want urban residents to face code violation risks that people living in the suburbs don’t.

“With shotgun lots being so long and narrow,” Dahmer said. “We really want to make sure that these city residents that have already been negatively affected by the property maintenance code and the weeds ordinance aren’t just being written in as a loophole.”

The proposal’s been assigned to Metro Council’s Public Works Committee. It’s slated to be up for discussion during the group’s Tuesday afternoon meeting

Yasmine Jumaa is WFPL’s race and equity reporter.