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Twp. officials direct PC to investigate weed ordinances

July 16, 2014 - Should government be involved in regulating the height of grass and weeds on private property?

Opinions on this question were mixed amongst officials and a handful of residents as the topic was discussed for 55 minutes at last week's Oxford Township Board meeting.

An Oxford Woods subdivision home that had two-foot-tall grass and weeds prompted some residents last month to call for an ordinance. The offending lawn and weeds have since been cut.

Sally O'Meara, who recently moved to the Oxford Woods subdivision from Illinois, favors such an ordinance for many reasons, one of which is she doesn't want homes with overgrown weeds and grass to become an epidemic.

"I've noticed one abandoned home, or a house that looks to be abandoned, becomes contagious," she said. "One house looks abandoned and the next neighbor goes, 'Oh, you know what? He doesn't mow his grass, I don't have to mow mine.' And then, pretty soon, it becomes a snowball and the entire community gets dragged down."

Helen Barwig, a Red Barn subdivision resident who's lived here almost 50 years, opposes having a grass/weed ordinance.

"The last I knew I was in the U.S. of A," she said. "(If) I don't have time to mow my grass, I don't think that's anybody's business, but my own. If my neighbor has a problem with me, he can come to me. Or I can go to my neighbor. I don't need tax dollars to be (spent on) making ordinances."

Ultimately, the township board voted 4-3 to have the planning commission investigate the issue by surveying other communities' noxious weed ordinances to determine what type of an ordinance it feels would best suit Oxford and submit a recommendation.

Voting in favor of the motion were trustees Jack Curtis and Melvin Cryderman along with Treasurer Joe Ferrari and Clerk Curtis Wright.

Voting against it were Supervisor Bill Dunn and trustees Sue Bellairs and Patti Durr.

Cryderman believes people who move into subdivisions have an expectation that their neighbors are going to mow their lawns and if they don't, "the township has some kind of an obligation" to step in.

"We tell people what to do. That's part of living in a community," he said. "If people are going to live together, somebody has to make rules up, so it makes it easier to live together."

Curtis said the issue isn't about dealing with noxious weeds, it's about dealing with overgrown properties that have a negative impact on home values and people's ability to sell their homes and realize a return on their investment.

"A noxious weed, to me, is poison ivy. A noxious weed, to me, is the grapevines growing through my Christmas trees," he said. "It's more (about being) a detriment to the economic welfare of this community . . . We need some sort of a tool to make people act responsibly (with regard to) their investment and the investments others have made in their property."

"I have no problem with what you do on your property as long as it doesn't impact my property," Ferrari said. "If you want to paint your house yellow and orange, that's your call. But you start letting your grass grow tall . . . it hurts home values."

Ferrari believes there needs to be an ordinance that pertains to subdivisions, not residents who own lots with multiple acres.

"We should have some kind of a mechanism, not as a Gestapo-type of thing, but some type of a mechanism where, if this is happening, they can call us," he said. "All communities have it. If you take a look at communities that have noxious weed (ordinances) versus (those that) don't, I would bet more do than don't."

"I'm not in favor of this," Dunn said. "I never have been. I believe people that own property have rights and who am I to tell them whether they can cut a tree down or (what their grass should look like). It's none of my business. The less ordinances that I have, the better off everybody is."

"I don't personally define my neighbors by how they keep their yards," Bellairs said. "One person's idea of some tall weeds in a neighbor's yard is not (the same as) another person's," she noted.

It was noted that whenever complaints of this nature have arisen in the past, Dunn and Ferrari have communicated with parties ranging from homeowners and their relatives to public safety agencies to, in the case of foreclosed properties, financial institutions to get the issue resolved. In the past, it's all worked without an ordinance.

But Curtis noted Dunn and Ferrari only get involved if a resident manages to get past their initial call to the township. "If I call up the building department right now and say I have a neighbor with long grass, they tell me there is no ordinance," he said. "But if all of a sudden, I slip through the crack and I get to Supervisor Dunn . . . there's action."

"My point is you don't have an ordinance, but you have a process that nobody knows how to get to," Curtis noted. "That's got to stop. The answer (when somebody calls) should be, 'We don't have an ordinance, but we'll have our supervisor look into it or the zoning enforcement officer.' There has to be follow-up and the only way to do a regulated, procedural follow-up is through an ordinance. That's why they enact ordinances."

O'Meara, who's a registered nurse, expressed her concern that properties with overgrown grass and weeds pose "very significant health risks" such as providing a home for ticks, fleas, chiggers and stinging insects.

"I don't want to be walking by my neighbor's grass and come out with a tick bite," O'Meara said. "I should not be risking getting these bites because I was walking along the sidewalk or the edge of the road in front of somebody's lawn in a subdivision."

O'Meara said tall grass and weeds are also a "breeding ground" for mice, rats and snakes.

"I'd really rather not be walking down the street and have Homer the snake come out and pay attention to me," she said.

She fears properties with overgrown yards could attract crime, such as minors looking for places to drink alcohol and take drugs, and even pose a fire hazard. "All we need are a couple stray fireworks to land on 10-inch tall grass that could quickly ignite and it can put the whole yard up in flames," O'Meara said.

In light of all this, she believes the local government has a duty to enact an ordinance.

"I think that Oxford Township has a very strong responsibility to maintain the health and welfare of its constituents and hopefully, make sure that these grasses are cut and people can feel safe walking though their neigborhoods," O'Meara said.

To O'Meara's concern about snakes, Barwig said, "This is the country."

"You have snakes. You have squirrels. You have everything running around," she said, noting she has rabbits running through her yard and deer eating her flowers. "This is what Oxford is about. Oxford is not the city."

As for weeds, Barwig called them "very pretty."

"I've got wild flowers in my flower garden. My flower garden's beautiful," she said.

Barwig believes there's no need for a township ordinance because it's up to neighbors to talk to each other and help each other when they can because there may be financial reasons or health issues involved.

To O'Meara's concern about tick bites, resident Ron Meyer said the only way to pick up tics is by walking through the tall grass, which would mean trespassing, not walking by it.

With regard to O'Meara's assertion that tall grass and weeds bring mice, Bellairs said she keeps her lawn mowed and "every single fall" with has a little problem with mice.

"The weeds are not going bring the mice. The weeds are not going to bring the rats. Garbage is going to bring the rats," she said.

Meyer, who's opposed to having a township grass/weed ordinance, indicated that Oxford Woods should form a homeowners association if the residents there wish to control this type of issue. "That might be the best way to handle something like this," he said.

Meyer asked township officials to "please remember most people moved to Oxford" because they want their property rights respected "and they think their neighbors should have their own rights."

Charlotte Thurston, who's lived in Oxford Woods for 34 years, doesn't like seeing overgrown yards, but she also believes people should "live and let live."

"I'll survive," she said. "I've seen people come and go. I've seen houses fall apart and come back. Everybody has a different standard."

Her main point was if the township does decide to enact some type of ordinance, she doesn't want it to hurt people because "we don't always know what the circumstances are" in a situation.

She asked that if the township passes an ordinance that it not place liens on people's property or force them to hire someone to cut their lawn.

"I don't want to persecute somebody," Thurston said. "People don't normally let their property go down (hill) unless something's wrong . . . We don't want to see somebody persecuted or maybe going to lose their property because the grass isn't getting cut."

As for the idea of Oxford Woods forming a homeowners association, Thurston said, "We don't want one."

"We voted it down a couple of times," she said. "We don't want people telling us what to do in our subdivision."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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