Effort underway to change Somersworth, N.H., lawn mowing ordinance


“I had a suspicion that there might be something like that hidden in the inspection regulations that might be limiting to the community wildlife project ,” said Scott Orzechowski, who chairs the city’s conservation commission, a tree board formed in 2018, and the Mayor’s Commission on Preserve Somersworth. The Conservation Commission is trying to certify the city for the National Wildlife Federation’s Community Wildlife Habitat Program, but they have to fulfill certain requirements before qualifying.
SOMERSWORTH, N.H. — After a Somersworth ordinance requiring residents to keep their lawns shortly trimmed made the headlines, the chair of the city’s conservation commission said he’s working to change the rule.
It was only after Somersworth resident Jacqui Pierce refused to mow her lawn and received a notice from the city that Orzechowski learned about the ordinance, which prevents residents from growing their lawns longer than 10 inches.
Orzechowski said he’s now working with city Councilor Matt Gerding to change the ordinance. He wants to broaden the definition of what the city will allow, be less rigid about weeds, and guide residents toward native species that can most benefit wildlife.
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“The biodiversity and climate change crisis, those things go hand in hand,” he said. “We’re losing species all the time and in danger of losing more.”
Orzechowski said he’s observed the decline even in Somersworth — this year, he said, he’s only seen a handful of monarch butterflies.
Butterflies are pollinators that can benefit from the extra habitat that’s created when lawns are allowed to grow and there are more flowering plants. But Somersworth enforces its rules about how long grass can be and how often residents must mow.
In August, Pierce received notice from the city that she had let her lawn grow beyond the acceptable length and that she would have to cut it by Sept. 8. Pierce refused because she wanted to preserve habitat for the bees she had started noticing on her lawn’s wildflowers.
Reached Monday, she cheered Orzechowski’s efforts to change the ordinance and offered to spread the word on his initiatives. “I’m not entirely sure how much our community knows about this,” she said in a text.
She mowed her lawn last week, she said on Facebook, since all of the yellow flowers the bees were feasting on had seeded and died off. Far from a capitulation, her tone in the post was jubilant. “Guess whose lawn looks 100x more green and lush than their neighbors who mow all the time?” she wrote.
Orzechowski helped Somersworth join the National Wildlife Federation’s Community Wildlife Habitat program, after finding that about 10 percent of New Hampshire is covered with turf grass, a habitat desert. In a densely populated city like Somersworth, proponents of the project believe the impact would be huge.
The city ordinance requiring residents to mow could be a barrier, but Orzechowski has worked with the council to change city ordinances for environmental benefit in the past, like extending the buffer zone around wetlands and vernal pools. In 2018, he helped create a tree ordinance to certify the city to become part of Tree City USA. They created a Tree Board during that process, which is an advisory committee when there’s a major project impacting trees.
He said the city has been amenable to those changes.
He drafted language and presented it to a councilor who sponsored it and added it to the council’s agenda. He expects the process to change this ordinance will be the same. Working with Councilor Gerding, he doesn’t expect to propose changes to the ordinance until after the November election.
Gerding could not be reached for comment on this story.
Another City Councilor, Martin Pepin, expressed some reservations about changing the city ordinance.
“To be perfectly honest with you, I have mixed feelings on it,” he said. “What I can say is a lot of people end up taking great pride in their lawns and prestige and if you have a neighbor next door that ends up having grass about 2 feet tall it diminishes their value of their property.”
Pepin said he hasn’t yet decided what the right answer is on this issue, as he’s sympathetic to the wildlife, having grown up on a dairy farm.
“In the downtown area, if someone wants to populate bees, there’s a whole range of things that influence it, between people next door, how they care for their property, if they get stung by bees,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of questions to be answered.”
He said he has filed to run again to represent Ward 1.
Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard shared some of Pepin’s concerns regarding property value, but said the city is always open to re-evaluating its ordinances.
“Sometimes best practices from decades ago or more don’t equal best practices” anymore, he said.
He praised Orzechowski and called him a good community leader but was did not say whether he would support changing the grass ordinance. But it looks unlikely that Hilliard will be presiding as mayor when the proposed ordinance is brought before the council since he is not running for reelection. He has faced controversy recently and was disciplined for alleged abusive behavior in his capacity as one of the top school administrators.
For his part, Orzechowski has managed to create a pollinator friendly habitat in his yard, without being reprimanded by the city.
His advice: “I think the best approach is to try to make it look palatable to your neighbors,” he said. His lawn features a sign from National Wildlife Federation that says it’s a certified wildlife habitat.
“The idea is not to make it a complete wilderness around your house,” he said. “That’s not necessary.”
Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.


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