Matt Helgerson, the Jordan school district’s superintendent, is battling it out with the Jordan City Council over an unexpectedly thorny topic — landscaping.

Helgerson recently asked the council for permission to plant native prairie grass, rather than sod, on 2 acres of land alongside the renovated middle school, opening this fall.

Sod initially was proposed in the site plan, which the City Council approved last fall. But after working with a consultant to make the new building environmentally friendly, Helgerson said prairie grass is a better choice.

“We feel like the prairie grass is a complement to all these other energy efficiency-related items and environmentally friendly items,” Helgerson said. “It’s designed to be an outdoor classroom for students.”

In a vote taken two weeks ago, however, council members voiced concerns with the updated plan before voting against it, 4-3.

“The main issue is that it wasn’t part of the original plan,” said Council Member Jeff Will. “That’s not what we approved.”

In residential zones, Jordan’s city code says prairie grass is allowed only on slopes, bluffs or wetlands.

Will brought up other worries at recent planning commission and City Council meetings. Prairie grass doesn’t look good, he said, and it would be harder for the city to enforce residential mowing rules with the nearby school setting an unruly example.

“We’re going to decorate it with a bunch of weeds?” he said.

The middle school project, and a community center addition, were funded by a $35 million bond request approved by voters in March 2014.

Will also said the tall grass presented safety concerns, like the possibility of someone hiding in it with a gun or students setting it on fire.

But the biggest concern among council members was with the controlled burns required by prairies every few years. The purposefully set fires encourage new plant growth, and the ashes fertilize the soil.

Fire Chief Steve Kochlin said he would have a “tough time” issuing a fire permit in a residential area because of safety and smoke concerns.

Helgerson said that while he’s disappointed, he’ll return to the City Council on July 6 with an amended plan for sodded areas amid native plantings.

“I think we have one more opportunity,” he said.

Growing popularity

The new middle school, which used the shell of the old structure, will have two new science spaces. Each will have a traditional laboratory, a computer lab and a project room. The labs will complement the school’s science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) focus, Helgerson said.

Outside, rain gardens and the prairie grass area — if approved — would serve as a “natural, Minnesota-based” outdoor classroom. The grass would conserve water and money because it won’t need irrigation like sod, he said.

Helgerson consulted with Prairie Restorations, a company that helps create and manage native grass areas. The company would conduct the controlled burns on site.

John Pauley, a Prairie Restorations sales manager, said he has done hundreds of controlled burns, many in residential areas.

“They are not dangerous at all,” he said. “We only burn when conditions are safe.”

Planting prairie grass is becoming more popular, especially with the focus on bees, he said. Many schools have “little environmental learning labs” set up, he said. His company has conducted burns at schools in Prior Lake and West St. Paul.

While people sometimes dislike the appearance of prairie grass, Pauley said he’s never heard some of the concerns presented by Jordan officials.

“I’ve never, ever, ever run across this kind of stuff with people hiding with rifles and stuff in the prairie or kids starting it on fire,” he said. “That’s all news to me.”