As the grass grows, so do the woes.

Dear Islanders,

This is my second summer as Supervisor. And I can see a pattern. As the grass grows, so do the woes. People want the grass cut—and they want it to look so good that the NY Yankees could come out and play at any moment. Yet there are places we can’t cut—they are controlled by the State (the Department of Transportation mostly, not the State Parks) and we, (as a town), might incur liability if we tried to cut land under their jurisdiction. 

But still the complaints come, and they come. And I fret and argue with State officials. And, I might add, it’s not just the complaints about State land—it’s also neighbor versus neighbor complaints. One neighbor might want his lawn to look like a putting green, while the gentleman next door prefers it a little more natural.  To all, I ask that you please be patient. It's been a rainy spring, and the grass is tall, but wet. And we are making progress, one messy cowlick of green at a time. 

But all of this early summer turmoil has got me thinking. How did we get to this place?

It all started with Olmsted. I’ve written about Frederick Olmsted before. I have a great deal of respect for the man. He took the beauty of grand British estates and he democratized it. Olmsted, of course, designed our parks at Niagara, Delaware Park, and Central Park—among many, many other beautiful places. He believed in sculpted landscapes. And it began in Chicago. 

He received a commission to design the first planned community in America at Riverside near Chicago. Each home was set back from the street, and he demanded no walls or fences. He sought inspiration in British estates, but he felt the working class in Britain lived in miserable, industrial dwellings divided up by ugly brick walls covered in broken bottles and spikes. Olmsted wanted everyone’s homes to to flow together seamlessly, like the rolling grass fields of Elysium. In other words, his planned community would look like one continuous park. 

The Olmsted model caught on. Soon there were books and guides to help people understand how to create a park. In 1870, Frank J. Scott wrote “The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds.” It remains influential to this day for how we maintain our homes. In it, Scott said, “A smooth, closely shaven surface of grass is by far the most essential element of beauty on the grounds of a suburban house.”

But all that mowing comes at a price. 

According to some estimates, every summer weekend we Americans use about 800 million gallons of gas to mow our lawns. That adds up to about 5% of the nation's air pollution and a good deal more in metropolitan areas. According to the EPA, a new gas-powered lawn mower produces the same amount of volatile emissions in one hour of operation as 11 cars driven for the same time.

The EPA also estimates that, while trying to gas up our mowers, we spill about 17 million gallons of fuel on our lawns per year. That's more than all the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez in the Gulf of Alaska. And then there are all the gallons of pesticides we use to kill every dandelion in sight. 

Maybe more significantly, lawns destroy natural ecosystems. As these ecosystems disappear and the human-dominated landscapes expand, butterflies, songbirds, and other creatures must fight to survive. According to study by the University of Delaware, humans have already turned 54 percent of the lower 48 states into cities and suburbs. That’s a lot of lost natural space. And new developments each year take up a few million more acres—the size of more than Yellowstone Park! 

If these nature-oriented statistics aren’t persuasive enough, take a look at tax fund distribution.

We have nice parks on Grand Island—really nice parks. Veterans Park is the best in the area—and it’s getting better (new electric coming soon for the Little League). 

But we pay for it. It costs about 800 hundred thousand dollars to maintain Veterans Park plus the other Grand Island parks and playgrounds. That’s almost 10% of the general fund budget for Grand Island. My point is we could make every spot of public space an Augusta National Golf Club; but nothing comes free. 

We will continue to work with the State to get the lawn cut.

Don’t think for a second that I’m arguing that we should stop cutting the grass. Long grass can be dangerous, or at least an eyesore. But we need to be smart about where and when we cut. I’ve tried every trick in the book to get the DOT to work with our highway department on some sort of cost-sharing plan that would allow our team to cut their space. But they can be territorial. I won't give up. And your complaints do help. 

We have non-stop been trying the past two weeks to get the DOT out here to mow.  Finally today (Wednesday), there are two mowers — starting mowing at the north end of West River. I am still worried about the Beaver Island Parkway because there is denser population — not to mention Kaegebein School!  I have decided to intervene and just cut the grass if it isn’t done. One way or another, as you read this, at least the Town output roads to Beaver Island Parkway will be cut at the corners for safety reasons. And I will be sending the State an invoice; complete with charges for labor, gas, snacks, and inconvenience. Check out my Facebook page for details.  It might be silly, but hopefully it will get their attention.

I’m also going to push for a maintenance agreement with the State Parks when that new West River trail opens. I don’t want that space looking abandoned. The issue is, and has been, that the space is in limbo—somewhere between the DOT and the State Parks purview. Thus, neither wanted ownership over it. But when it becomes fully under State Park control I expect a better maintenance routine. In fact, I’ll make sure we get something in writing. 

But I do think we should reconsider a few things. There are places that must be cut and maintained, and there are places that maybe we could think about growing out. No, I don’t want you to use your lawn as some sort of protest piece against conformity. Please continue to mow it. I get a sense of pride out of mowing mine. I wish I had more time to devote to it. I bought an electric mower this year, by the way, but I’m guessing that it’s not much better for the environment. That battery will be in a landfill soon enough. 

Still, an open discussion about how lawns should look and be maintained might be in order. Instead of constantly hacking, whacking, and shellacking nature to be beautiful under our terms, we might want to let parts of it shine with natural beauty. After all, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, a weed is just “a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” And maybe a new book about rock gardening or grooming natural heather might be the newest breakthrough in lawn care since Olmsted. 

With highest regards,

Nate