Zoning Practice — June 2004

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Cynthia Bowen, AICP, author of the April 2004 Zoning Practice article "Landscape Ordinances: To Define and Protect."

Question from Kathy Macefield, Planning Department, Helena, Montana:

I am commenting about the statement under the picture on the first page that states, "Planners cannot underestimate the transformative power of shrubbery along blank walls." I don't think planners have the problem understanding what a positive influence landscaping has on a development. However, I find in Montana that often that understanding is not as good with developers, engineers, architects, and property owners who are often looking at the bottom line for costs. As a result, landscaping is one of the items that seems to be too easily cut or reduced in scope from the original plan (which complied with only the minimum area requirements in the first place ― trees were the "extra" amenities!). The educational process has to be constant.

One of the tricky areas continues to be what constitutes landscaping with increased use of rock as "mulch" and instead of grass in times of drought. Here, residential landscaping is more typically up to the individual homeowner (so there often is not a plan) and is not done by a developer. Landscaping plans are often not required for single family residences (in this community they are currently required for 4-plexes and larger number of units). I am glad to see this article which can help to bolster our efforts as we proceed to update our own city zoning regulations for landscaping.

Responding to some of the ordinances referenced in the article, I wonder if requiring a tree for so many square feet of building size might be better than based on lot size (Brownsburg, Indiana). It seems like it might be desirable to have more than one tree for an 8,000 square foot lot which would allow them to reduce the number of required shrubs. Street trees: Here, people are responsible for the maintenance of their boulevard. At the present time, the boulevard landscaping isn't included in the onsite landscaping requirement. Do you know of any communities that either require the property owner to plant in the boulevard, and allow the boulevard landscaping to count as part of the onsite landscaping requirement (2-part question)? Finally, I found it interesting that some Public Works departments are responsible for snow removal in non-residential parking lots instead of requiring the property owner to do that maintenance.

Answer from author Cynthia Bowen:

Regarding your comments for trees per square foot, we are indeed looking at changing this provision, as well as the shrubs, to be a function of building square footage. We are in the process of taking a development plan and applying the change to see what the impact will be.

In the communities that have the boulevard, when the site plan is submitted, the developer has provided for plantings in the boulevard rather than the homeowner or business owner. The public entity then maintains the area as it is usually part of the right-of-way. I have not come across any communities where the city requires the developer or owner of the property to plant or maintain that area while the public entity owns it, let alone count it as part of the requirements. Typically, if plantings are required it is through a street tree provision, therefore counting it separate from any on-site landscaping.


What landscaping ordinance provision would you suggest to upgrade the landscaping of older shopping centers, especially the paved parking lots, and what triggering device would you suggest? In our city landscaping ordinance, the triggering device is a building permit for an addition or remodeling that exceeds a certain percentage of the building's assessed value.

Are planter strips (e.g. a 5' landscaping area between curb line and sidewalk) a generally good or generally bad idea? What right-of-way cross section do you like best for a residential streetscape when city street standards require curbs and sidewalks on both sides?

Thank you for answering these questions.

Answer from author Cynthia Bowen:

What I have come across with older shopping centers is that they lack landscaping throughout the parking lot and along the edges. Since the parking lot already exists, it is difficult to have the owner go back and add parking islands because they would have to break up the asphalt where the parking island is desired to plant trees and shrubs. This usually is not a feasible approach. This is not to say that it can't be done, but there will be cost involved.

I would recommend a slightly different approach. You could add very large planters along the sidewalk where the store is located. That will add immediate landscaping to the front of the store. These could be maintained with seasonal plants (i.e. spring and summer flowers, pumpkin and stalks in the fall, and cabbage in the winter). Secondly, plantings, or even a berm (if there is a enough room), can be added along the outside of the parking lot bordering it. This landscaping can include trees and shrubs. This is more cost efficient than adding landscaping to the interior parking area.

I have found with many ordinances that the easiest way to trigger landscaping provisions on existing structures is through the remodeling process as you mentioned. There are a few communities that trigger it strictly by the percentage of remodeling rather than factoring in the assessed value. However, in my opinion that seems to be a more equitable solution to consider the assessed value.

Regarding the 5' planting areas between the curb line and sidewalk, I believe that it is a good idea to have these. Many utility superintendents don't mind the strip. However, some prefer not to allow street trees and shrubs in this area for fear that the roots may grow into the pipelines. For a residential streetscape cross section, I prefer a 5' sidewalk (ideal) with a 4' mowing strip (ideal) on each side of the street.

I hope this information helps.

Question from Joanne Stewart, Arlington, Texas:

The League of Women Voters of Arlington working with the League of Women Voters Tarrant County (Fort Worth) are beginning a study of local tree ordinances and landscape ordinances. Do you have some resource suggestions? We will be contacting a number of communities in our county asking if they have tree and landscape ordinances, and, if so, to send us a copy. How should we look at these ordinances? At the conclusion of our study we will be coming up with a list of recommendations for ordinances which we will support and encourage local governments to include in their ordinances. If you have some suggestions, I would welcome them.

Answer from author Cynthia Bowen:

There are many sources for tree ordinance and landscape ordinance information. I would first start with APA. If you are a member of the Planning Advisory Service (PAS) you can ask APA to provide some research in a packet regarding tree and landscape ordinances. This would be the easiest way to get information.

As you mentioned, another resource is to call local planning agencies and request copies of their tree and landscape ordinances. This is a great way to find specific language that works in communities in your area that have similar weather conditions, soil conditions, and state enabling legislation for zoning, so you know the provisions work.

A third resource, which is more time consuming to look through, is the Cyburbia website. You can access it at www.cyburbia.org. Go to the Resource Directory Tab and click on Land Use and Zoning. Under Landscape Ordinances they have three links. If you click on Zoning and Land Use Regulations, and then United States, you will be linked to zoning ordinances around the country. Be aware that these are full ordinances and here is where the work comes in. You will have to scroll through the ordinances to print out only the landscaping sections. This will take you some time to do.

Regarding how to review these ordinances. What I suggest is that you make a table. I find that using Microsoft Excel is the best way to handle this. For each of your desired characteristics (i.e. buffer yards, on-site landscaping, street trees, screening, ventilation areas, etc.) I would make a column across the top, with the name of the ordinances down the side and then you can check off if the ordinance has the characteristic or not. Other columns I might add would be one for ease of understanding. Meaning, can you read it and interpret it immediately without having to ask questions, research other areas of the zoning ordinance, or spend time with pencil and paper to figure it out. Also, if the provision seems more unique than the others, I would probably have a comments line for notes to remember when reviewing the list. But you should always make sure that it can be implemented in your community. Do you have the staff to review and enforce the standards? How will you review them or enforce them, etc.? There is no harm in pulling different standards for different places to create your ordinance as long as you tailor it to your needs.

Those would be some of my suggestions for you. I hope these provide you the guidance you need.