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Grass and weeds: How high can you get?

City wants more control over habitual offenders

By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY–North Liberty City Council members want to keep things equal on both sides of the fence, at least when it comes to mowing.
The council considered proposed changes to the city’s weed and grass heights ordinance at its meeting last Tuesday, Oct. 8, some of which were rejected by council.
The city administration regularly fields complaints about residents who let their grass and weeds go, and city employees were seeking a way to eliminate sending perennial reminders to repeat offenders.
The ordinance requires grass on all types of properties be kept at no more than six inches high– with a few exceptions, including city-owned property.
North Liberty resident Dan Schrock asked why the city should be exempt from its own rules.
Schrock lives on St. Andrews Drive, and his property abuts Freedom Park.
“The city wants to exempt themselves from leaving their grass long,” said Schrock, who claimed the city’s grass has reached heights of four feet in the past. Though it’s not on his property, Schrock said, it still creates problems for his lawn. “It grows, and then it seeds. It’s like prairie grass. And dandelions can cover a whole neighborhood with seeds.”
Bull thistles and Canadian thistles, which Schrock said are also present on city property, are considered noxious weeds and illegal according to Iowa code.
“I’ve been bugging them about that for years, and they are well aware of this illegal act,” said Schrock. “My question to you is, would you want this in your area?”
The city has four full-time parks employees, with the help of 12 summer hires, to maintain North Liberty’s 275 acres of public grounds– parks, city-right-of-ways, and lawns around public buildings.
According to Schrock, it’s 320 spaces that must be mowed, weeded, mulched and tended.
“Last summer I asked if they would mow behind my house, and they said sorry, they had the little league diamond to tend to,” said Schrock. “Now what about the other 319 areas unattended? In my opinion, they need to hire more people right away. If they don’t have enough (money) in their budget to hire, they need to stop adding parks.”
Freedom Park is one of those green spaces that receives regular mowing, but not the pristine manicuring of some of the city’s other parks, said North Liberty Parks Director Guy Goldsmith.
“We have three levels of maintenance for our retention ponds,” Goldsmith said in a telephone interview after the meeting. “For example, Liberty Centre Park and Pond is on the higher end of the spectrum. Then we have areas like West Lakes where we mow parts of it, but we are not allowed to touch the wetland mitigation areas, so we have to leave those in a natural state. Freedom Park falls in between.”
Part of the park is planted as a native prairie area and only gets mown once a year, while the rest is on a continuous mowing schedule and it gets done regularly, Goldsmith noted.
“The area Mr. Schrock refers to is in a natural drainage area. We mow what we can there, but we also have to go in and hand-trim the rest along the fences and areas we can’t get into with the mower,” Goldsmith said.
Addressing noxious weeds is another matter.
“It could be sprayed, but since it is in a watershed area, we have to be very careful what we spray. The cost of that type of herbicide would be triple that a traditional weed killer,” Goldsmith said. “We have to be careful about how we spray, and make sure we are not affecting the public in a negative way.”
The weeds growing in the city’s public areas receive as much attention as possible, Goldsmith added, and they aren’t all that bad.
“In a perfect world, we’d have no weeds at all, but there are weeds, and we keep everything mowed, and trim the areas we can’t,” he said.
As for hiring more staff, Goldsmith said it’s on his wish list as well. He requested an additional full-time parks employee last budget season, but it wasn’t funded.
“Everyone would like to have more help, but it all comes down to the budget,” Goldsmith said. He plans to make another request this spring.
“Early spring and late fall is our toughest time, because the 12 summer hires are gone. Now we scale back to maintaining the highly-manicured areas first, and go back to the mid-level priority areas when we can,” Goldsmith said.
It’s a standard the North Liberty council members would like to continue; at least three of the council members questioned the city’s exemption.
City planner Dean Wheatley said the city exemption was included in the ordinance because it is typical practice to do so.
“(Many years ago I was taught that) when you write an ordinance, always except your city,” Wheatley told the council. “There was no attempt to avoid any particular situation.”
Council member Gerry Kuhl disagreed with the practice in this case.
“I don’t think the city should exempt itself,” said Kuhl. “That’s kind of what congress does.”
Coleen Chipman agreed with Kuhl.
“If we are not maintaining are own areas– I understand not mowing the natural areas– but I think it is important to clear out the noxious weeds,” Chipman said. “I think there needs to be a distinction (in the ordinance).”
Councilman Terry Donahue concurred.
City administrator Ryan Heiar, like Goldsmith, noted the city has areas are designated as prairie and wetland mitigation areas which cannot be mowed or manicured. Other exemptions are properties where slopes are too steep for safe mowing, rural right-of-way cross sections and undeveloped lots of one acre or more.
“I think we all agree on (deleting) the city exemption,” said Donahue. “The (other) exemptions that were brought up are reasonable, but I do think definitions should be part of it,” said Donahue.
Growth on undeveloped lots would be limited to 12 inches in height, except on either side of sidewalks, trails and intersections, where it should be mowed to six inches to provide sight distance. Council member Brian Wayson suggested another distinction would be where people have planted rain gardens, ornamental grasses or other native species.
The last point of discussion concerned notifying property owners who are repeatedly in violation of the code because they let their grass get too tall. The amended ordinance would only give a signal notice to habitual offenders; not once a year, but once a lifetime as long as the property is owned by the same person and is consistently in violation.
“The reason we are recommending that is because it’s many of the same property owners, year after year,” said Wheatley. “They game us. We’ll send them a letter and then they send us a letter back, asking where is their property.”
“It’s frustrating when somebody knows what they are supposed to do and we are having to go back and start over, and they drag it out and complaints come in,” added city attorney Scott Peterson. “We are talking about the small percentage that are on-going, year to year, that are intentionally not doing it.”
Wayson, Donahue and Chris Hoffman said they prefer property owners be sent at least one letter each year.
The councilors tossed around ways to provide an annual communication with identified habitual offenders, but not have to restart the formal notification process or give them an opportunity to delay the ultimate consequence: city staff doing the mowing, and assessing the property owner for the cost.
“The practical implication of that is it takes more staff time to do it,” said Wheatley.
On a 4-1 vote, with Kuhl against it, the council approved the first reading of the proposed amendments, but asked Peterson and Heiar to make minor changes for the second reading, including keeping the annual notification to chronic violators, refining the descriptions of excepted areas, and removing the city’s exemption.