Municipal landscape requirements

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    Rick Spalenka

    Recently our local newspaper quoted our community development director stating that municipalities are scaling back on their landscape requirements for new development.  That new development landscape requirements are scaring off new business in this current economy.  I challenged that in a letter to the editor.  Can anyone provide some facts or observations supporting him or me?

    David J. Chirico

    Can we see a link to the article and your rebuttal?

    Jordan Lockman

    As landscape architects we are generally on the fence on this argument. Developers only build where it is financially viable and having too restrictive of a landscape code potentially can be enough to be the “straw that breaks the camels back”. However, with most developers not all, the minimums become the maximums and then you are left with a concrete jungle and no signs of life.

    So facts??? I would start by looking at what plant and animal benefits there are to additional landscaping.

    Look at the actual costs compared to the overall project. A lot of times the site work is a fraction of the cost of the building portion of the project as far as dollars and some extra trees and landscaping would not be a problem.

    What are the benefits to the building from landscaping. Heat absorption, quality of life, curb appeal, rain water percolation, screening(cost and aesthetics) vs no screening or building based screening, etc.

    Most landscape codes are for percentage green space, trees per foot, buffers, etc. Sometimes it is in the environment’s and everyone’s’ best interest for a city to be light on their hard requirements and allow a compromise that results in a better solution. For example if they let you encroach on a landscape buffer on one portion of the site that lets you maintain a larger patch of native vegetation elsewhere.

    It would be easier to be more specific if we knew what article we are responding too. 

    Wyatt Thompson, PLA

    I’m not sure how scientific this is, but it’s an interesting tool.


    I have recently worked on a design for a commercial project in a Chicago suburb with a very strict landscape code and as part of my due dilligence was in contact with the city planning staff/landscape architect.  (The project is a redevelopment of vacant office building.)  During our discussions he suggested that I could modify their buffer requirements and that I could adjust some of the other items they were requiring in order to assist in achieving the intent of the code and not being so rigid on pure tree and shrub counts.  He even mentioned they are in the process of re-writing their code to lessen it’s restrictive nature.  Even with the modifications they were allowing the code is still pretty strict.  One of his passing comments was that his bottom line was the city wants this project to happen and they weren’t going to let their landscape code stand in the way.

    Jason T. Radice

    I think many places are coming to realize that the code really doesn’t help things. You cannot really quantify your way to good design. You can get ‘nicer’ landscape often with fewer trees and shrubs if they are placed correctly. Spacing a tree ever 25′ doesn’t mean that much, and even total vegetaitive cover (while allowing more flexibility) still does not guarantee a nice landscape, because the developer will buy the absolute cheapest and smallest plants they can to meet the code, rather than invest in larger or more expensive varieties of plants and better design. Remember who usually ends up designing many commercial landscapes…civil engineers, because landscape designs are submitted with the initial site design in many jurisdictions. The same 5 plants end up going in everywhere, appropriately or not.


    Thankfully, that trend is starting to change around here, and the landscape is only reviewed when the building footprint and site engineering are set and the LS is adjusted accordingly.


    Quality of quanity.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    It is just as strict as ever in my area. The only thing thing that I have seen that is economic crisis driven mitigation is that the state granted a blanket extension on Orders of Conditions so that projects that have been permitted won’t expire from delays on financing. ie, subdivisions that were required to have the infrastructure constructed in three years with be allowed more time (I think two more years).

    Rick Spalenka

    Here’s the link to the newspaperr with the cited article:


    Here was my letter to the editor which they said they will print next week:

         It was with concern and dismay when I read the DCI’s front page story on December 14th concerning the City of Delta backing away from site development standards.  It appears our local area is potentially regressing back to the stone age.  I’ll explain that direction shortly.

         First I would like Community Development director Glen Black to provide evidence that municipalities “have shifted away from” landscape percentages.  True Mesa County has readdressed their landscape code to give some flexibility to landscape requirements but to use the phrase “shifted away” is misleading at worse.  The way the City of Delta implements its landscape code is more of a problem than the code itself.  I know from personal experience that developers are afraid to have creative and attractive landscape plans because they fear they will be required to implement those plans to the letter before a certificate of occupancy will be delivered.  It could be more flexible and end results more attractive if developers are allowed to only install the code requirement to qualify for their CO and then be allowed to install fill-in as resources allow.  This implementation would encourage more effective use of the creative talents of landscape architects.

         Second I noticed a typical misunderstanding of the profession of landscape architects.  We are not “certified” but rather licensed no different than architects and engineers by the State of Colorado.  In fact it is first a misdemeanor than a felony to call oneself a landscape architect without being licensed.  We add the post nominal letters PLA to represent Professional Landscape Architects after our names very similar to engineers using PE.  We take a National five part two day exam to qualify for our license that is in fact more difficult to pass than one would take to become a Registered Nurse.  Our first time pass rate is lower than the nursing exam.  I know this from personal experience.  There was a comment about the high “cost” of our service.  Factoring in the hours involved to develop a proper landscape plan we incur more hours and realize less per hour billable than your local automotive mechanic.  The DCI story stated “The code also specifies that landscape plans must be approved by a “certified” landscape architect, which also increases the cost to development.”  Kudos should be given to the City of Delta for recognizing Colorado Revised Statute Title 12, Article 45 that requires all landscape architectural constructions documents be signed and sealed by a licensed landscape architect.  This is not an option for the City of Delta.  This is State Law.

         Third I was not surprised to read the suggestion to promote xeriscaping.  This is probably the most misunderstood landscape practice ever promoted.  Xeriscaping was first promoted by the City of Denver in the early 1980’s to conserve water use and it was quickly discovered using the term “xeriscaping” may have been a mistake.  Wasted water use is a National concern but Xeriphitic plants should not be substituted nationally.  Xeriphitic plants are typically plants with very small leaves to minimize water transpiration and deep roots to collect any available subsurface water.  A more appropriate term is “Water-Wise” and consists of seven steps.  Not just using xeriphitic plants, drip irrigation and excess stone mulch.  The end result of this misunderstanding and not recognizing the seven steps is people often call xeriscaping “Zeroscaping”, polka dotting the landscape with sickly looking sticks, installing poorly maintained and non functional spaghetti drip tubes that find themselves on top of poorly maintained weed barriers and using stone mulch to the point of Ad nauseam.  This is where I feel we may return to the “stone age.”

         Finally I find our local engineers are trying to solve storm water management problems in typical engineer fashion.  The requirements on developers to meet city storm water code are insane.  Just look at a recent physician’s office in Delta where the code ended up involving five engineers and resulted in a rock pit.  More progressive municipalities in the US and Europe are implementing the use of more porous pavers and paving techniques, bioswales, biodiversified retention/detention areas and water harvesting to sustain an assortment of otherwise difficult to grow flora and fauna and still meet their storm water management goals.  Even our Nation’s Capital is incorporating rain gardens in their government and commercial development.  I was recently personally affronted when a local town administrator told me landscape architects are not qualified to address storm water management problems.  The State code has a summary of provisions that states the “Practice of Landscape Architecture: includes, but is not limited to the following substantive skills:…Project and Construction Administration; Inventory Analysis and Program Development; Site design; Design and Construction Documentation; and Grading, Drainage and Stormwater Management.  Grand Junction’s recent and successful redevelopment of their Main Street was led by a landscape architect firm.

         I seriously doubt that businesses would decide to not move to an area because policies and policy makers encourage attractive landscape codes and guideline and instead locate here because the policy makers  encourage returning to the stone age.  


    Rick Spalenka PLA ASLA






    Brett T. Long

    Excellent rebuttal, Rick.  We should talk.  I have some very interesting situations that are very closely mirroring your efforts in the City of Delta.  My practice is vested in the City of South Lake Tahoe, CA.  Incidentally, also situated on Highway 50.  You may want to call them on the fact that it appears the City Manager is “putting together some ideas” for loosing up the landscaping guidelines without community or professional input.  Maybe he can use all of his omnipotent understanding of the world to change the plumbing codes, building codes, and fire codes.  Possibly, he has some ideas for improving medical procedures as well.

    Brett T. Long

    Hey Rick. This may be a helpful example of a more progressive city direction.  This commission is slowly getting more sustainable site planning and landscape policies into city codes.  There was actually an incentive program that gave priority permitting review to projects that were attempting to meet a list of sustainable guidelines.


    EXCELLENT rebuttal Rick.

    Very well written. In my limited experience it seems landscape code is typically written for the gas station chains, ie conocos and kum and go’s rather than private local developers who want to do good projects.

    Rick Spalenka

    In my limited experience it seems landscape code is typically written for the gas station chains, ie conocos and kum and go’s rather than private local developers who want to do good projects.


    Hi Nick.  You comment is true in many more progressive areas.  We live in the OutBack.  Watch out for the kangaroos.  Are you packing enough water when you trek through Western Colorado?  The developers here will do the absolute minimum they can get away with.  Rock, rock, rock.  It’s cheap.


    I know. Like I’ve said before I’ve worked on a couple of projects in Rifle, sort of in your area. The gas station and car dealership clients were the toughest in terms of bare minimums becoming maximums. I blogged the original article on my site and will follow when they post your response. Well done.

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