Legal issues

Learning the Landscape

Avoid Headaches by Addressing Local Landscape Ordinances Early in the Development Process.

Like taxes and death, landscape ordinances usually are inevitable, although savvy commercial real estate developers may be able to negotiate trade-offs to reduce costs and time spent on landscaping.

In most communities, developments must adhere to landscape ordinances as a part of the construction-permit approval process. Depending on local planning departments, these ordinances can have minimal effect or a major impact on a development's feasibility.

Whether or not commercial real estate professionals are involved in the development process, they should have a solid understanding of the ordinances that can affect their markets. While landscape requirements have the most impact on new development, those involved in property reuse and rehabilitation also should be aware of landscape ordinances.

Commercial developers often consider landscape ordinances to be an additional financial burden and time constraint. However, they also should consider the benefits of such requirements. When landscape ordinances are thoughtfully created, they can add value to property by standardizing landscape design within a community, increasing a building's curb appeal, and creating transition zones between different property types.

Commercial Landscape Ordinances
Commercial landscape ordinances vary greatly from city to city. Overall, the goal of landscape ordinances is to create uniformity among like developments and create a separation between unlike developments. The following types of landscape ordinances often apply to office, retail, and multifamily developments.

Landscaping Within Parking Areas. Most ordinances require that from 5 percent to 10 percent of paved parking areas be devoted to landscaped green space. These plantings usually are situated to break up large expanses of pavement. In addition, ordinances often require that a certain number of trees be planted in direct relation to the number of proposed parking spaces, such as one shade tree for every 15 parking spots.

Costs will vary. However, landscaping for a sample 10,000-square-foot paved parking area that requires 5 percent landscaping, or 500 sf, could run about $1,800 to $2,100 for 500 sf of turf grass, 56 shrubs, and two shade trees. This amount does not include irrigation, curb, or guttering costs.

Perimeter Landscape Buffers. Traditionally required between two differently zoned parcels, a landscape buffer often is a 10-foot strip along the property line with a designated shade, ornamental, or conifer tree count for every 100 feet.

Buffer Plantings Along Public Rights of Way. Plantings also often are required for parking lots located within 50 feet of a public street. Usually designed to screen headlights, these shrubs are based on the number of lineal feet of street frontage.

Credit for Preserving Existing Trees. City landscaping codes usually provide credit for the preservation of existing trees located on the site. Preserved trees can be traded for a reduction in the required percentage of landscaped area within a parking area or a reduced number of plantings along buffers.

Credit for Resource-Conserving Planting Methods. Credit for desired design and planting principles that conserve water has become increasingly popular as the price or availability of water for irrigation and maintenance costs have increased dramatically. These landscape designs incorporate plants that require less irrigation, reduce water-loving turf areas, use mulch to slow evaporation, and use efficient irrigation.

Mitigation Strategies
Although developers cannot completely avoid these types of landscape requirements, some cities may mitigate particular sections of their code, but usually will expand the requirements in other areas.

For example, when communities re-quire buffer plantings, developers have reduced the number of plants needed by constructing earth berms — or sculpted mounds of earth that create a design element — along the buffer area. Even if a city does not reduce the quantity of the plant material required, developers often can use smaller plants, which cost less. For instance, a row of 5-foot pines planted on a 2- to 3-foot earth berm creates a better buffer than 8-foot pines without the berm. Stripping and stockpiling topsoil under pavement areas for use in building the berms can help to save costs.

Occasionally developers can construct masonry walls in lieu of the required buffer plantings. The cost of wall construction usually is higher, but using a wall may yield a larger parking area, increasing a project's feasibility.

Another strategy is to preserve a property's existing trees, which can result in landscape credit and a reduction of required plantings. Again, a site plan that successfully incorporates mature trees may have more appeal than one that is planted with 6-foot nursery stock.

With limited opportunities to avoid landscape codes, the best approach is to get the most from the time, design effort, and money spent to implement requirements.

Including the landscape design team at the beginning of the design process can ensure that local codes are adhered to from the start. Such advance planning can avoid costly and time-consuming situations such as having to redesign parking areas to allow for required landscaping percentages.

Construction Considerations
Besides these general cost-control measures, developers can save money by being aware of site-specific landscape guidelines related to construction. These items should be included in construction plans; if absent, commercial developers can raise these points in predesign meetings with their site planners.

Locate Irrigation Sleeving Early. Make certain that irrigation-sleeving locations, which facilitate later irrigation installation, are indicated on a paving plan that is submitted for a paving bid. Irrigation is considered part of the landscape package and is not bid on until the hardscape construction is well underway. But irrigation-sleeving locations need to be placed before the construction of concrete curbs, gutters, and asphalt subbases. These locations can be determined by the irrigation plan's preliminary design. The money spent on early irrigation placement easily saves 10 times the initial cost of the sleeving if any boring or trenching through asphalt is required to install the irrigation system later.

Remove Paving Subbase From Landscape Islands. As a result of constructing concrete curbs and gutters, landscaped islands (where trees will be planted) often contain a gravel subbase and compacted soil. In clay soils, a soil stabilizer is added before any soil compaction or placement of subbase. Before planting, all compacted soil, stabilized soil, and the asphalt subbase must be removed to provide a root zone for the planned trees in the islands. Topsoil then can be placed in the island. The removal of the paving components allows the penetration of water through the island to the existing soil below. If this excavation is not done, the chances of long-term survival for any material planted in the island are minimal.

Mound Topsoil in Landscape Islands. Trees planted in landscape islands have a better chance of survival if the topsoil is mounded to the center. This provides positive surface drainage and a greater root zone. On an island 10 feet wide, mounding 1 foot down the center will provide the necessary drainage and root zone.

Perform Soil Tests. Soil with the proper nutrient level will enhance the chance for vigorous growth soon after planting. To find out what nutrients are needed, take a soil sample from existing topsoil — as well as any topsoil brought to the site — to the local county extension office for a soil test. The soil used for the test should be taken from several locations to get a composite sample. Most soil tests are $15 to $25 for basic analysis.

Protect Drip Lines of Existing Trees. When existing trees are designated for preservation, do not allow any material storage, stockpiled soil, or equipment storage under the trees. Any vehicular movement under the drip line — defined by the farthest extent of any overhead branches — can cause severe damage by compacting soil around the root zone. The trees to be saved should be fenced off to prevent any access during construction.

Install Irrigation Lines on Sides of Landscape Island. Often irrigation contractors run lines down the center of the island. If trees are to be planted in these islands, the root balls, or the portion of the tree that is buried in the soil, will conflict with these lines and the line will have to be relocated to the side. Instead, place the lines along one side.

Flag All Utilities Prior to Excavation. A note stating that locating all utilities before any excavation is the responsibility of the landscape and irrigation contractor should be included on the construction bid.

Other Considerations
One of the greatest benefits of thoughtful landscape ordinance creation is the assurance of the quality and longevity of plantings for future generations. This is accomplished in part by establishing successful planting guidelines for local growing conditions. If ordinances do not include such information, commercial developers can seek input from local arborists, horticulturists, and county extension and forestry staff. In addition, they can provide lists of recommended shrubs, trees, and groundcovers for specific locales, which greatly assists developers and site planners in choosing plants with the best chance of survival.

The plant material best suited for locations varies greatly within short distances. For instance, plantings adapted to coastal areas are not capable of surviving only several miles inland. Local horticultural resources may provide more information.

Overall, developers should view landscape ordinances realistically, incorporating specific requirements into the design early on and budgeting time and money wisely.

Robert Butin

Robert Butin is a landscape architect with Yung Design Group in Branson, Mo. Contact him at (417) 335-8235 or


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