Restrictive Green Building and Landscape Codes

By Tom Delaney

An emerging way government ensures that the community fosters nature is by enacting landscape codes or ordinances that specify minimum standards for promoting natural environments in the city. In recent years, city after city nationwide has turned to this type of legislation.

Landscape ordinances typically provide for the preservation of natural features such as wetlands, erodible slopes, special native habitats, and specimen trees. In some communities, ordinances focus on the protection of the public water supply, while in others, preservation of the tree canopy is the focus. Many communities formerly enacted ordinances for aesthetic reasons or to serve economic development, but now they have ordinances that include water conservation.

There are generally three categories of landscape ordinances:

1. Tree ordinances are the oldest, and are single issue laws that focus on municipal tree care. These were originally drafted to set up city forestry departments, care for public trees, and regulate the tree care industry. Modern descendants of this type of ordinance focus on urban forestry and tree management practices.

2. Post-construction landscaping ordinances are being drafted by U.S. cities, suburbs, towns, and villages to regulate landscape design, maintenance, plant material selection, and installation practices. This type of ordinance regulates planting of building sites following construction and typically consists of a series of “design components” and “technical standards.” Design components are sections of a landscape ordinance that make reference to specific parts of a site, building lot, or development property that must be designed using “minimum” standards, specifications, or technical requirements. These ordinances often require the signature of a licensed landscape architect.

3. Comprehensive landscape ordinances, sometimes referred to as “land alteration ordinances” or “land development codes,” are the newest type of ordinance. They regulate site clearing and habitat destruction, and set standards as to what natural resource can or cannot be disturbed. These can be very sophisticated and highly regulatory ordinances that control not only landscaping, but also land clearing, tree protection, tree removal, stormwater management, erosion control, groundwater recharge, water conservation, wetland preservation, and land grading.

Building codes have long specified design standards that must be complied with for the purposes of structural durability and public safety. Only recently, however, have green landscape “building codes” come into existence in communities across the nation. As a result, landscape contractors are quickly having to change the way they approach design and maintenance. City and county governments across the country are requiring that landscape plans be drawn to code, and that landscape designs and installations meet the requirements of these landscape building codes and ordinances.

Get involved in the process

While some of these regulations may be reasonable and cost effective, some are questionable, and will likely become more problematic in the future if we do not play a role in helping to shape them.

In the years ahead, we will see more laws affecting the landscape contracting industry. Some of those laws could help the profession grow and prosper, while others could threaten the efficient management of landscapes by prescriptively limiting things such as the amount of turfgrass or other materials in the design. Unfortunately, many landscape contractors are unaware of these laws and are unprepared to respond to this ever-growing threat to their businesses.

Landscape codes are rapidly changing the future of landscape contracting industry as we evolve into new site design and urban design standards. The landscape code of tomorrow will set forth design components and technical standards that will be crafted into law in order to merge the “built” environment with the natural.


Associations such as PLANET and OPEI are participating in, and influencing, the model codes, both when they are being written and revised. Everyone in the landscape industry needs to be involved now, and when codes are proposed for adoption by state and local governments. This is how we can ensure that we remain able to bring the value and beauty of green environments to our communities and customers.

Tom Delaney, is director of government affairs at the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET). He can be reached via e-mail at

Visit PLANET’s Legislative Action Center (go online to and, from the Government Affairs tab, select Legislative Action Center) to get more involved in the issues that impact the industry and your business.

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