The Knox County Soil and Water Conservation District and several of its supporters on Monday pleaded with city council members to leave a 2018 landscape ordinance unchanged.
But their urging seemed to fall on deaf ears as city council members went ahead and voted to make the changes — ones that have been discussed now or months — made by councilman Ryan Lough.
During the council’s July 13 meeting, Lough, the first grounds assistant at Vincennes University and former manager at Perk-A-Lawn Gardens, presented changes to the current landscape ordinance — one that has been largely ignored in recent years by new and developing businesses.
Among those changes was the removal of a non-voting seat on the Tree Board, meant to be the enforcers of the landscape ordinance, that is to be filled by an expert from SWCD.
That non-voting seat is currently held by Will Drews, the county’s natural resource specialist.
Additional revisions included the removal of language that would have encouraged businesses to use native plants and trees in their landscaping as well as a reduction in the number of “green islands” required in parking lots.
Drews, who was instrumental in writing the county’s invasive species ordinance and leads the county’s Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (CISMA), addressed concerns he and other residents had about Lough’s proposed changes.
Armed with packets of information for each council member, Drews said some changes — like the reduced mandate for parking lots — didn’t concern him so much. But others, he fears, will have long-lasting negative consequences.
“The one that probably concerns me the most is providing assistance to the Tree Board as a non-voting member,” he said. “(The council is) trying to erase that position.”
Drews argues that with a background in urban forestry, he has the expertise to offer insights to the Tree Board and help clarify aspects of the invasive species ordinance, a piece of legislation approved by the county commissioners in 2018 that prohibits the sale of several invasive species of plants, shrubs and grasses, to businesses.
He’s also concerned that the proposed changes, specifically removing language that encourages the use of native species, will set back the progress made in the removal of invasive, non-native species across Knox County and stifle the working relationship between the the city and the SWCD.
“The council should strive to not take us back to the 1960s and 70s,” Drews said. “We see revising the ordinance as creating a disconnect between the city and all of the forward progress made.
“Please listen and read the information before making these changes final,” Drews pleaded.
About a dozen Knox County residents stood in support of leaving the ordinance as is, with a handful taking their turn to address the council.
Local naturalist Terri Talarek King said she was particularly disturbed by Lough’s recommendation to “strike the entire paragraph” that encourages the use of native plants.
She questioned the rationale behind the move, noting that “the item is not a mandate; it only encourages the use of native plants.”
“And there are many reasons native plants should be encouraged,” she said.
King and others — like SWCD’s Development Director Troy Hinkle — say Knox County’s ordinance has been an example for others across the state.
So why change it?
“The shining star in all of this was working with (city council) in the development of this ordinance,” said Hinkle, adding that dealing with invasive species and the loss of native plants could turn out to be “the environmental issue of our day.”
A number of those concerned about the proposed changes to the ordinance also questioned the motives of council members.
Denise Eagle, who also spoke in opposition of amendments to the ordinance at the July 13 council meeting, asked the councilmen directly, “Why not support it? What is your reasoning?”
Eagle, who holds a master’s degree in forest biology said she understands the benefits of native plants to the environment and the community, adding that “this is not a new idea.”
Drews and Eagle said the council should also consider the growing support for the use of native plants across the community, with Eagle citing a number of local groups who have actively volunteered more than 700 hours to remove invasive plant species.
Self-described “tree farmer” Ray Chattin also spoke in opposition to the ordinance changes, saying “invasive species are a threat to my livelihood unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
And Chattin said he was particularly disturbed by the move to cut the Drews’ seat from the Tree Board.
“Is this not someone you would want on your landscape committee? Would his opinion not be of use to you?” he asked, referencing Drews’ credentials and background.
A clearly impassioned Chattin went on to argue that adopting the proposed changes would leave “a legacy of bringing disservice to the people of Vincennes.”
Council members, however, held tight to the ordinance as it’s been amended in recent weeks, their reasoning being that an easier-to-follow ordinance might be one that is actually enforced.
Their goal, members have said, is to have a piece of legislation that offers clear guidance on what is expected but not one so strict and detailed that it drives business developers away — or encourages them not to comply at all.
In defense of his removal of the SWCD’s non-voting seat on the Tree Board, Lough, who was a vocal opponent of the county’s invasive species ordinance, said he thought its existing five members “capable of making a decision.”
He called it a “wonderful board,” comprised of “great, wise, hard-working” individuals.
“And all they’re doing is reviewing an ordinance and making sure businesses are complying with it,” Lough said. “I just don’t see a need for that particular spot to be on the board. If they need advice, I think they are capable to look for that advise.”
Lough, too, said he “didn’t want to see invasive species (continue) taking over” areas of Knox County, but he pointed out that the county ordinance still prohibits their sale regardless.
He saw no reason, though, to limit what businesses can use to only native plants.
“Our intention is to make sure people can put the best plant in the best possible location,” he said. “If it’s a native plant, that’s great. Native plants are an asset to the area.
“But we want to open it up so people can use any type of plant, so long as its not invasive.”
Councilman Marc McNeece, in an attempt to appease those who showed up in opposition to the changes, reminded them that the ordinance can — and should be — reviewed annually.
Anything that isn’t working, he said, can be changed.
“But people aren’t following (the current ordinance), not in any way, shape or form,” McNeece said. “I believe, if we have an ordinance that is easier to follow, we’ll have more people doing it.”