Punished for growing native plants in Chicago

December 30, 2012

Why is the City of Chicago fining people for growing native plants?

I got a couple of surprises last week. The first was when the Fastest Talking Woman in Horticulture, Jennifer Brennan, walked into the studio with her world famous Grandma’s Cinnamon Sour Cream Coffee Cake, which is her great grandmother’s orginial recipe that Jenn has refined over the years. Of course, in addition to being horticulture information specialist from Chalet in Wilmette, Jennifer is also co-host of our local gardening and cooking TV show, Dig In Chicago.

Jennifer sat in with me for all of last week’s show, and she got to hear the second thing that surprised me, which was my last-minute guest Kathy Cummings. You might be interested to know that in 2004, Kathy’s garden in the Humboldt Park neighborhood was the recipient of a first place award for “Most Naturalized City Garden” in the Mayor’s Landscape Awards program.

And then, this past Halloween, Kathy was fined $640 by the same city for apparently being in violation of its Rules and Regulations for Weed Control…by growing native plants.


It’s bad enough that, under the Rahm Emanuel Administration, the Mayor’s Landscape Awards Program seems to have been elminated. That’s a shame in itself. But to start fining people for growing natives in their yards? Yes, I’m not unaware that a lot of people consider native plants “weedy.” Personally, I think that’s because they’ve been brainwashed by the “lawns are the only proper landscaping for a front yard” propaganda machine. But that’s just me.

Here’s what the ordinance states:

1.0 Scope and Purpose. The purpose of these rules and regulations is to provide guidance on determining whether vegetation is a “weed(s)” within the meaning of Section 7-28-120 of the Municipal Code of Chicago, and as such is subject to the restrictions and abatement measures set forth in Section 7-128-120.

2.0 Definitions. As used in Section 7-28-120 of the Municipal Code of Chicago and in these rules and regulations: “Weed “or “weeds” means vegetation that is not managed or maintained by the person who owns or controls the property on which all such vegetation is located and which, on average, exceeds ten inches in height.

It’s interesting that the ordinance states that the vegetation cannot be on average, more than ten inches high. That seems arbitrary in itself. How many plants in your garden are under ten inches high…and that includes vegetables. I’m also interested in how an average height for plants in your yard would be determined. More than likely, it would be up to the discretion of the inspector, which, in this case are from the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

Consider that at the same time, the City is promoting its Chicago Sustainabile Backyards Program, which promotes growing native plants by stating that

Native Midwestern plants have evolved to thrive in our natural conditions and once established, require little maintenance. Native plants are deep-rooted plants and help direct rainwater into the soil. If planted in a rain garden in conjunction with a disconnected downspout, native plants are especially effective for managing stormwater. Native plants are ideal for rain gardens because many can withstand a range of wet-to-dry conditions, and their long roots absorb more water. Plus, they are beautiful and attract birds and beneficial butterflies and insects.

Not only that, but the program explains how Chicagoans can obtain forms that will allow them to get up to a 50% rebate for native trees and other native plants.

Kathy has the option to appeal the fine but she must make that decision by January 3. The appeal process would cost another $317, with no guarantee that she would prevail. And that might take total costs up to nearly $1,000.

By the way, if you’re wondering if Kathy has good intentions but doesn’t follow through, please remember that her garden won first place in the Mayor’s Landscaping Program in 2004. And here’s what a neighbor wrote about her garden on December 22 of this year:

As a neighbor living directly across Thomas St. from Ms. Cummings, I can say that I have never thought that her property has in any way appeared neglected or dilapidated. I have often seen Ms. Cummings working in her front yard maintaining its appearance. In addition to maintaining her own property, I have witnessed Ms. Cummings picking up litter all along our stretch of Thomas St. as well as on nearby blocks of streets she does not live on such as Haddon…The city could scarcely have selected a more inappropriate citizen to cite for this type of violation. In a city filled with abandoned homes, unfinished construction projects and homes generally falling into disrepair, to single out Ms.Cummings for her choice of plants that grow in her front yard is scandalous.

Proving once again that no good deed goes unpunished.

Kathy joins me again on the show today, along with environmental expert Suzanne Malec-McKenna, former commissioner of the former Chicago Department of the Environment, also dismantled by Mr. Emanuel. (Hmm, I’m sensing a theme here.) It is Malec-McKenna’s signature on that 2008 weed ordinance, and I suspect that she’ll have some insight as to what the law was intended to accomplish.

Stories I missed (or didn’t get to) in 2012

On the final show of each year, wetry to list a few news stories that cover the environment, gardening or green issues that, for one reason or another, I didn’t have time to get to during the year. They are stories that I noticed while looking up other things, or that were sent to me by listeners and friends. Here are a few, with no guarantees that I will get to them on this show, either:

Happy New Year, y’all!

It’s a Wonderful Slice

December 23, 2012

“It’s a Wonderful Slice 2012″…with an all-star cast!

It’s that time of year again (and aren’t we glad that the holiday season comes only once a year?), which means that I trot out my annual dismantling of one of the great holiday film classics, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

I started this strange tradition about 21 years ago, when I was still working for Gargantua Radio down the dial (sometimes known as WGN). This was when Republic Pictures, the original copyright owner and producer of Wonderful Life, neglected to renew the 1946 copyright in 1974. Slate has the basic story here. This Wikipedia entry covers it in more detail.

At any rate, it seemed to me that folks might like to hear the movie on radio, especially since it wasn’t going to cost the station a nickel. However, I doubted that listeners would be willing to sit through all two hours and ten minutes without visuals. So I recorded the sound track and cut it down to exactly ten minutes and thirty seconds. I tried to get it to under ten minutes, but that’s something I suspect not even God could do.

The ten-minute version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” aired on Gargantua Radio for several years. Then something unfortunate happened. According to Slate:

Republic regained control of the lucrative property in 1993 by flexing a new Supreme Court ruling that determined that the holder of a copyright to a story from which a movie was made had certain property rights over the movie itself. Since Republic still owned the copyrighted story behind It’s a Wonderful Life and had also purchased exclusive rights to the movie’s copyrighted music, it was able to essentially yank the movie out of the public domain: It claimed that since Wonderful Life relied on these copyrighted works, the film could no longer be shown without the studio’s blessing. (Technically, the film itself is not copyrighted. One could hypothetically replace the music, rearrange the footage, and sell or show the new product–but no one has done this.) In 1994, Republic * signed a “long-term” deal granting NBC exclusive rights to broadcast the movie, and the network typically does so between one and three times a year.

So there I was, with a brilliant (if I say so myself) ten-minute version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with no venue. Unless…

Eureka! I knew what to do–memorize not only the script, but also the voices and their inflections (after all, I had everything on tape–and in those days, it really was tape), add some blocking and schtick and Voila: “It’s a Wonderful Slice of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’

Since that time, I have performed the piece on stages, in living rooms, in bars, in Savings and Loans (yes, really), outdoors, indoors and just about any place large than a postage stamp. I have done it on radio numerous times, as well as on video.

And so I present the 2012 version, with a great cast of folks from Chicago’s Progressive Talk, AM & FM. Here’s the cast, with the “actors” listed first, followed by their roles:

Ron Cowgill (host of WCPT’s Mighty House) – Uncle Billy
Mike Sanders (host of WCPT’s OurTown) – God, Bert, Ernie, Martini, Truck Driver, Harry
Lisa Albrecht – Mary
Sarah Batka – Violet, Mrs. Bailey, Janey (she even “plays” the piano!), Zuzu
Dennis Schetter – St. Joseph, Man #1, Man #2, Mean Man, and probably some other character that I’ve lost track of

If you don’t catch it live during the 10:00 a.m. hour on Sunday’s show, you can always listen on my podcast page.

Rick DiMaio gets his Masters…Congratulations!

After last Sunday’s show, I grabbed my stuff, quickly headed out of the station and made my way to Chez Rick DiMaio, where a number of us gathered to surprise my excellent meteorologist on the completion of his M.S. Degree in Meteorology (what else?) from Nothern Illinois University. You haven’t lived until you’ve been in a room full of meteorologists waxing poetic on various weather phenomena.

As Rick stated on the air last week, he didn’t exactly count on finishing his degree 30 years after getting his bachelor’s…but I guess that’s life. Anyway, I was happy to be a part of the surprise celebration at Rick’s apartment overlooking Lake Michigan.

Seriously, I can’t thank Rick enough for having shared his weather wisdom with me and my listeners for almost five years now. In my opinion, he’s the best in the business in Chicago, and I wish him much, much success and happiness in the years to come.

Happy Holidays: Environmental Groups Take on IDNR

December 16, 2012

IDNR: “arbitrary and capricious decision” to approve Starved Rock mining permit – in other words, they’re being sued

It’s been exactly a year since I first got wind of the plan to site an open pit frac sand mine just outside the eastern entrance of Starved Rock State Park in LaSalle County. I went back to look at the website entry I posted for December 18, 2011 and, at that time, the LaSalle County Board of Zoning Appeals had just met and unanimously approved the special use permit to allow Mississippi Sand LLC establish its operation on 350 acres of farmland on the south side of the Illinois River.

In the twelve months since that initial decision, the mine has come closer and closer to being a reality. The full county board voted to approve the action of the zoning board, and Mississippi Sand began the process of submitting permits to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Office of Mines and Minerals (OMM) and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA).

Meanwhile, local and state activists began making their voices heard. Groups like the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, Openlands and Prairie Rivers Network led the charge, but other groups and individuals have worked tirelessly to get the word out to the general public that the very character of this beloved state park could possibly be changed forever–and for the worse. I have interviewed countless people on my program–those representing environmental groups, and residents who stand to be directly affected by this affront to the beauty of the area.

Three weeks ago, to the dismay of those involved in the battle, IDNR OMM approved Phase I of the Starved Rock mine. But the latest chapter in this struggle between industry and the environment was written this week when the Sierra Club , Prairie Rivers Network, and Openlands filed a complaint in Circuit Court in Springfield, Illinois demanding judicial review of that sand mining permit.

It reads in part:

Defendant Mississippi Sand, LLC…failed to comply with SMLCRA [Illinois Surface Mined Land Conservation and Reclamation Act] by submitting a Conservation and Reclamation Plan…a Reclamation Map and Affected Area Map with its application for a surface mining permit, which inaccurately and inadequately describe its proposed silica mining project adjacent to the eastern entrance of Starved Rock State Park…in LaSalle County. Defendants Michael Woods, Michael Falter. OMM (collectively the “OMM Defendants”) and IDNR violated SMLCRA in that they approved the flawed Reclamation Plan. Reclamation Map, and Affected Area Map, and, as evidenced by their written findings, failed to consider adequately all of the thirteen factors relating to the short and long-term impacts of the proposed mine as required by SMLCRA…As a result, OMM Defendants and IDNR made an arbitrary and capricious decision to approve the Mississippi Sand surface mining permit. [Empasis mine.]

The “thirteen factors” cited above include the short and long term impact of the proposed mining on vegetation, wildlife, fish, land use, land values, local tax base, the economy of the region and the State, employment opportunities, air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, noise pollution, and drainage, as required by the Surface Mined Land Conservation and Reclamation Act and its regulations.

The petition continues:

The actions and inactions of Agency Defendants will allow the degradation and destruction of private and public interests. The mine and its operations will injure the enjoyment and health of park users specifically and persons generally, as well as the healthfulness of properties near the proposed mine. Neighbors to Starved Rock, visitors to Starved Rock and wildlife will experience intermittent bursts of loud noise from explosive blasting at the mine site. Noise and air pollution will harm and directly disturb neighboring businesses including a nearby apiary. Aesthetic and health impacts on the park will likely reduce the number of visitors to the park and thereby harm businesses that rely on park visitors for revenue. Nearby properties may flood. Visitors to Starved Rock and neighbors may suffer from, and will fear harm from, carcinogenic respirable silica dust and other airborne pollutants from the proposed mine. Defendant Mississippi Sand will partially destroy and wholly alter the flow characteristics of Horseshoe Creek, which flows into Starved Rock. All of these impacts, and the community perception of such impacts, may reduce the value of nearby private property. Finally, Defendant Mississippi Sand may be unable to reclaim the mined land as its Reclamation Plan and Reclamation Map indicates and the law requires.

In one of the more interesting aspects of this action, the environmental parties bringing suit contend that the Office of Mines and Minerals violated the Illinois Surface Mined Land Conservation and Reclamation Act (SMLCRA) by “Failing to Consider Adequately its Statutorily-Required Factors.” However, they then turn around and declare that “SMLCRA Violates the Due Process Guarantee in the Illinois and United States Constitutions as it was Applied by the Agency Defendants in This Case.”

SMLCRA is unconstitutional to the extent that it is held to provide that no notice or predecisional hearing is required for the members and supporters of Plaintiffs whose protected property interests are placed at risk by the issuance of this permit.

A. Due Process requires that IDNR hold a hearing on a non-coal surface mining permit application at the request of persons whose property interests will be jeopardized by the permitted activity.
B. Due Process requires IDNR to consider comments on a non-coal surface mining permit submitted by persons whose property interests will be jeopardized by the permitted activity.
C. Therefore, if SMLCRA is held to allow IDNR to issue permits for activities that endanger protected property interests while denying those whose interests are at stake any opportunity to be heard at a meaningful time, in a meaningful manner, SMLCRA violates the Due Process Clauses of the United States and Illinois Constitutions.

Finally, the plaintiffs charge that IDNR Defendants’ Violated the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act by Failing to Fulfill Consultation Requirements.In the end, the suit seeks to void the permit; “providing such further and additional relief as this Court deems just and proper.”

Today, I’m pleased to have Cindy Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, return to the show to talk about the law suit and where we go from here. From an article in the NewsTribune out of LaSalle, Illinois:

Tony Giordano, president of Mississippi Sand, LLC, said the sand mine project was ready to begin next spring but now that a lawsuit has been filed it could delay the project for as long as a year.

“This has been the most scrutinized sand mine in the state of Illinois,” Giordano said. “It’s frustrating. This lawsuit has little merit. There are multiple state agencies that have examined mines and given us permits. In the end, we’ll get our permits and have to look at that time what the market will bare [sic].”

Or maybe the project will be scuttled entirely. ‘Tis a consumation devoutly to be wished.

If you want your voice to be heard, there’s still time. Here’s how you can contact Governor Pat Quinn. He’s been awfully silent on this issue. Makes me nervous.

Lisa, Sarah and Mike offer great books for holiday gifts… Part Deux

Last week we interviewed a few authors of books that we thought would make good holiday gifts. However, as you know, my show is only two hours long, which means that a number of good books didn’t get discussed.

So welcome to the second part of our discussion. Let’s start with some books recommended by Lisa Albrecht, who really got short shrift last week. My apologies, Lisa. Take it away:

Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy — and Our Planet — from Dirty Energy by Danny Kennedy
Obviously I am biased but this is my favorite. Danny Kennedy likens the move toward solar to the Industrial Revolution, hence the name. He predicts a “Solar Assent” as we move from dirty energy to clean sources that each of us can own individually. My favorite part – each chapter has a section called “What You Can Do as a Rooftop Revolutionary”. I like action and often I am inspired by a book or message but lack a “next step”. Danny not only offers them but his website includes the links and back ground that you need to join the revolution.

Power Trip, The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy by Amanda Little
I recently met Amanda Little, who shared her exploration of the energy industry first hand, including a journey to the top of an oil rig and the catacombs of NY tunnels. Although I am not finished, the book reads like a Lonely Planet of the energy industry and is engaging adventure, painting pictures of technology few get to see firsthand. Sectioned into two parts, the first reveals the evolution of oil/energy over the last century. The second discusses new possibilities, offering hope and vision.

Clean Break: The Story of Germany’s Energy Transformation and What Americans Can Learn from It by Osha Gray Davidson
As a solar professional, Germany is revered as the Meca of Clean Energy, both a source of shame and inspiration as an entire country with the sunshine of Alaska successfully shifts to renewable energy. Osha Gray Davidson visited Germany this summer to witness the success and tell the story of Germany’s desire to break up with dirty energy after Chernobyl in 1986 and the movement that is known as Energiewend or “energy change”. He explores the social climate that has driven their success and a nationwide commitment toward a cleaner, self-reliant future and how we might be able to do the same in the US.

Meanwhile, a couple of other selections popped up on my radar screen, thanks to the good folks at The Mountaineers Books.

On Arctic Ground: Tracking Time Through Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve by Debbie S. Miller
What if I told you that there is a tract of U.S. land that is larger than the state of Maine and that is largely untouched by our all-too-greasy-hands? Well, it does exist in Alaska (where else?) and it has the unfortunate name of the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska. Yup, what might be the most pristine place left on the planet (with the possible exception of Antarctica (and who wants to go there besides me?) is ready to be exploited by the people who have turned exploitation into a science (yes, I’m talking about us…as in U.S.!) Debbie Miller has explored just a fraction of this territory and in this very cool and important book–made even cooler by the fabulous photographs– explains why we might want to preserve this area instead of milking it dry for its oil and gas.

Cairns: Messengers in Stone by David B. Williams
What do I know about cairns? Pretty much nothing. And what do YOU know about them? I’m guessing the same. Which is why we need David Williams to tell us about what are essentially piles of rocks that have meaning. For thousands of years cairns have been used by people to connect to the landscape and communicate with others, and are often an essential guide to travelers. Cairns, among other things, can indicate a trail, mark a grave, serve as an altar or shrine, reveal property boundaries or sacred hunting grounds, and even predict astronomical activity. Who knew? (Apparently, David did.)

Books recommended by Ron Wolford at Illinois Extension

Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia

Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs

Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening

Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest – University of Illinois

Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers – The American Horticulture Society

Crockett’s Victory Garden

Step-by-Step Gardening Techniques Illustrated