Ask ELi: Promotion of Native Species in New Developments?

Monday, March 4, 2019, 8:30 am
Paige Filice

Above: Developer’s rendering of the “amenity deck” for Newman Lofts, the age-55+ housing being built above the parking garage on Albert Avenue as part of the Center City District project. See a larger version of this image here.

An ELi reader wrote in the following question: I’m wondering if there has been any effort by the City to promote the use of native plants and/or plants that have not been treated with potentially harmful pesticides in the landscapes of new development in East Lansing?

Only one East Lansing ordinance addresses using native plants in developments, and it is specifically for areas near wetlands. There are no other City ordinances that require new developments to utilize native plants or to use plants not treated with pesticides.

Developers can purchase plants from any nursery. Some plantings have to be approved by the City Engineer before they can be planted, including any tree, plant, or shrub in public right-of-way or park, however, there is no requirement that the species be native. The requirement for consultation is meant to prevent problems for public infrastructure.

When there is a site plan for a new development, “The City works with the applicant to make sure that the plant material is going to have the best possible chance to survive. That usually means planting native plant material,” according to Darcy Schmitt, Senior Planner with the City of East Lansing.

Schmitt tells ELi, “It is rare that we see a developer or their consultants request non-native plant material because of maintenance issues. Under most situations, the property owner is required to maintain the landscape so it is in their best interest to plant native plant material.”

But is that the case? While the City may encourage the usage of native species in new developments, in practice, developers do not always use native plants.

For example, in the plant schedule for the approved City Center District development downtown – which calls for relatively substantial landscaping for an urban redevelopment project – none of the fourteen proposed trees or shrubs are technically Michigan native species. Many are cultivars that have been selectively bred to be disease- or drought-resistant.

Some are hybrids between two native species. For example, six Armstrong Maple trees are being planted along Albert Avenue. Armstrong Maple are a hybrid between Red Maple and Silver Maple, two Michigan native tree species.

Another hybrid tree species proposed for the Center City District project is the Patriot Elm, a hybrid elm species that is resistant to Dutch elm disease. It is a hybrid of four different elm species.

Other proposed shrubs include Chicago Apache Daylily and Sum and Substance Hosta, neither of which are native to North America.

It is important to note that not all non-native species, cultivars, or hybrids are invasive, or negatively impact the environment. Invasive species are defined by the United State Department of Agriculture as causing ecological or economic harm or harm human health. What constitutes “harm” has variable definitions.

There are undoubtedly many benefits to using native plants. Aside from their environmental hardiness, they also provide habitat and food to native insects and wildlife. Native plants and their importance in urban settings was previously addressed in a 2015 ELi article.

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