Plan to jail property owners for tall grass sparks worldwide flurry on Web
UPDATE: 11:56 AM, Wednesday, May 21, 2008
BY ED BALINT
REPOSITORY STAFF WRITER
CANTON The city of Canton has been compared to communists, fascists and terrorists in response to a proposed law that sends repeat violators of the city's high-grass law to jail.
The legislation has drawn the ire and scorn of people as far away as Tulsa, New Orleans, North Carolina, and Sydney, Australia. A Repository story in Tuesday's edition about the plan generated heavy traffic on the newspaper's Web site and triggered scores of e-mail from people outside the area who say it's a blatant example of over-reaching and liberty-infringing government.
One e-mail was titled: "Sounds like Russia to me." Another reader was equally harsh, asking, "Where do they find these Hitlerian morons? 30 days in jail? Something has gone very wrong in this country. What a joke!"
"Putting people in jail for tall grass sounds like an act of terrorism to me," wrote an attorney from Louisiana.
City Council is expected to vote Monday on a proposed amendment to make a second violation of the city's weed and high grass law, a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $250 and up to 30 days in jail. Existing city law already makes a first-time violation a minor misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $150 and no jail time. The existing law — and the proposed amendment — also apply to litter on the lots.
City officials say they would rather not bother with mowing high grass, because it sucks up time and taxpayer money. But severely overgrown lots — with grass and weeds ranging from around 12 inches to sometimes 4 feet high — drag down city neighborhoods, said Mark Adams, director of environmental health for the city health department.
"We're not after a home in which grandpa had a heart attack and the grass is a little too tall," Law Director Joseph Martuccio said. "This (proposed law is) designed to deter repeat offenders, those who have already been given due process by the city and the bill, and then have subsequently been convicted by a court of law the first time on a minor misdemeanor."
"We're driven by complaints from the neighbors to get these neighborhoods cleaned up," said Councilman Greg Hawk, D-1, a strong proponent of the legislation. "The good neighbors who live next to these vacant lots ... mow their yards (and) they don't want to live next to houses where the grass and weeds are knee-high."
At a council committee meeting Monday night, Martuccio said it may be unlikely that a judge would sentence a repeat high grass violator to jail, unless the judge wants to set an example to deter other violators.
Helping drive the avalanche of responses was the posting of the newspaper story on various Web sites, most notably the popular Drudge Report, which wrote its own headline on the article: "City vows to jail people who don't mow lawns."
A reader e-mailed this warning: "Small laws are pieced together into huge tyrannies." At least 40 e-mails streamed in, including one praising Canton: "What a great idea! How about we make this a national law! I wish Broken Arrow and Tulsa, (Okla.) had this same attitude towards property neglect."
The city's intent is not to patrol city streets and measure yards with rulers to check if grass exceeds the city's existing 8-inch limit, said Service Director Thomas Bernabei. "It's grass which is extraordinarily noticeable," he said — "A foot or two longer than the average lot," with many lots in "deplorable condition."
Martuccio agreed. "This is definitely for repeat offenders who pose a safety threat to their neighbors by having the potential for rodents or hidden cans, for example, that a child might fall on and get cut while they're playing."
Increasing the potential punishment is also designed to cut the city's grass-cutting costs on noncity lots, Martuccio said. Hawk said the money would be better spent on hiring police officers and firefighters.
The average overgrown lot costs the property owner $100 per mowing, including labor and equipment costs and a $35 administrative fee, said Kevin Monroe, street superintendent.
Reinforcing the existing law is focused on vacant lots and lots with abandoned houses, Bernabei said. The city cuts about 2,000 noncity-owned lots a year deemed to have excessively high grass, many "way over" 12 inches in height, said Adams of the Health Department. A handful of those lots have owner-occupied homes, he estimated. Twelve of the lot owners are dead. The owners of about 1,100 of the lots have city mailing addresses, Adams said, and about 1,500 are owned by individuals. Banks and corporations own some lots.
Violation notices and bills sent in the mail often get ignored, according to city officials. Tax liens also are filed, Hawk said. The city is considering seeking court judgments to collect the money, he said.
As for Canton being compared to Russia, Adams replied, "If you think this is Russia, don't bother coming into Canton, don't bother coming into a city (with people) who want to live in a sensible and reasonable community."
Reach Repository writer Ed Balint at (330) 580-8315 or e-mail: