Craig and Beth Sinclair’s St. Lawrence Street property has been transformed into a naturalized garden, a habitat for birds and butterflies, over the past several years. Photo credit: Craig Sinclair

Victory in the fight for the right to a natural garden

Charges against Smiths Falls residents dropped by town.

In a case that will affect municipal by-laws across Canada, Craig and Beth Sinclair can announce that Smiths Falls has withdrawn the Order to remove their natural garden.

The Sinclairs have been carefully cultivating a natural garden for years, planting hundreds of native wildflowers, trees and shrubs, following the advice of wildlife organizations to place habitat logs in their yard for birds and pollinators, and maintaining their landscape for biodiversity. 

Last year, the Town of Smiths Falls ordered the Sinclairs to remove their habitat logs, which the Town labelled “waste,” cut unspecified “grass and weeds” to 20cm, and remove “all landscaping” within 3 metres of the curb (and presumably leave bare soil). 

The Sinclairs’ appeal to the Property Standards Committee drew considerable negative attention to the Town and its by-law enforcement due to the bizarre nature of the Committee hearing. As a result, the Sinclairs appealed to court. 

On May 9, 2022, Beth and Craig received a Notice stating, “as the process continues with regards to the review of the current Property Standards Bylaw for the Town of Smiths Falls, the decision has been made to rescind the Property Standards Order relating to your property. The Property Standards Order 2021-19 will be rescinded effective immediately.” 

We’re very pleased the Town has abandoned its strategy of prosecuting us for simply growing a legal, natural garden,” said Beth Sinclair. “We look forward to the Town’s new by-law that establishes a right to treat private property as a sanctuary for pollinators and other important species,” she added. 

The Sinclairs appealed the Order to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in a case that is centred on the right to grow a natural garden. 

“The Town was going to be mowed down in court,” said David Donnelly, legal counsel to Beth and Craig Sinclair. “The precedent was set years ago by Sandy Bell that property owners and users have a right to grow natural gardens, the Town knew this and pursued the charges anyway. Still to be determined by the court is how much this ill-conceived prosecution will cost the Town, and why it took so long to drop the charges,” Donnelly added. 

In two similar cases, the Sandy Bell case in the 1990s and the Douglas Counter case in the early 2000s, Ontario courts have ruled on the constitutionally protected right to a natural garden. But municipalities across the country continue to have overly broad by-laws on their books and enforce them arbitrarily against natural gardens. 

“While this is a step forward for Smiths Falls, and a relief to the Sinclairs, who faced months of harassment for their environmental actions, it is important to note that municipalities across the 

country continue to enforce vaguely worded and aesthetically based ‘property standards’ and ‘grass and weeds’ by-laws,” said Lorraine Johnson, renowned author and advocate for native plant gardening. Going forward, the Sinclairs’ goal is to safeguard the right to a natural garden and put an end to vaguely worded and arbitrarily enforced by-laws that place barriers in the way of positive environmental action in support of biodiversity. 

Professor Nina-Marie Lister, Graduate Director of Urban Planning at Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson) University appeared before the Property Standards Committee in aid of the Sinclairs. She and her team developed a model bylaw and a free toolkit for municipal planners. 

“The model bylaw provides clarity and weeds out the vague wording; it is the basis for the City of Toronto’s recently revised bylaw which recognizes the right of individuals to support 

rsity in their private yards and natural gardens. If Toronto can do it then other municipalities across Canada can and should do so, too,” adds Lister. A victory party is being planned for a future date.

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