Too much green in the yard and less in the wallet

Late spring and early summer thunderstorms have brought a bevy of rain to the area, causing lawns to explode with growth and grass to grow well higher than a grasshopper’s eye. For some area property owners, that has meant extra time spent mowing their lawns. For others, it has meant letters from town hall, official citations, fines and even expensive mowing fees.

In Ocean View, the maximum grass height according to town code is 8 inches, according to Melanie Breech, receptionist for the Town of Ocean View.

Homeowners get 10 days notice to get back in compliance, but Breech noted that since they have been down a maintenance man recently, they have been a little behind in enforcement. She said that, for the most part, people are receptive to the notices. They understand that ordinances are there for a reason and everyone wants to keep the town looking nice, she said.

In Bethany Beach, residents also have to keep their grass below 8 inches to be in compliance with town code, although Barry English, who does code enforcement for the town, often gives people leeway, especially in the off-season.

“The code is 8 inches. But I’m lackadaisical with it. When it gets over 12 inches, [I send a letter]. Or sometimes it’s been 24 inches or better before I send a letter — especially in the early spring. We send a certified letter with a return receipt and a regular letter,” English noted. “We give them five days from the receipt of the letter, and if it is not cut with 10 to 15 days, I can order it cut.

That’s common practice for most towns — a guaranteed way to make sure the town doesn’t end up with eyesores from property owners who won’t or can’t comply. But the fees involved often generate ire, since they’re generally intended to be part fee for the work to cut the grass and part punitory costs to ensure compliance in the future.

“We aren’t in the grass cutting business,” English emphasized, “so a first-time charge is $100, $250 for the second time and $500 for the third and every time thereafter. It awakens the homeowner who gets a bill and realizes their grass guy usually charges $20 or so. Some people aren’t happy with the billing,” he admitted, “but for the most part people are receptive.”

The town is only required to send one letter noticing the violation, plus the schedule of fees for the year, said English.

In Fenwick Island, the code limits grass height to 10 inches. Fenwick Island sends written notice to an offender by certified mail, receipt requested, and they then have 10 days to cut the grass or have it cut. If they do not comply, the town can have the grass cut for a fee of $250 each time.

Patricia Schuchman, building/code enforcement official for Fenwick Island, said that, most of the time, when she sends the letter advising the homeowner of high grass, she usually doesn’t have any more problems throughout the summer.

“Our ordinance advises that if their grass is not cut within 10 days of their receipt of the letter, the town’s Public Works Department will cut the grass for a fee of $250,” she said. “If it is not paid, a lien would be placed against the property. Only once since I’ve been doing this job have I had to have the Public Works Department actually cut someone’s grass,” she noted of her 10-year history with the town.

Schuchman noted that that the letter the town sends about violations serves two purposes — as a reminder to comply with the code, and as a check and balance for any landscape maintenance contractor the homeowners might have hired.

“Knowing that there are a good deal of property owners who are not always here, the letter is, No. 1, a reminder that the lot now needs to start having regular grass cuttings, and, No. 2, if they’ve hired a contractor to mow the lawn and have been billed, this lets them know if the job is actually being done or not.

“For the most part, if you look at the properties throughout Fenwick Island, the yards always look good,” she said.

With recent changes to the code in South Bethany, it is the strictest of the coastal towns regarding grass-height violation penalties. Their code limits grass height to 10 inches, but instead of a letter requesting compliance, they simply arrange for the grass to be cut, charge the homeowner and fine them between $50 and $500, plus court costs — something Timothy Saxton, a Maryland resident who owns property in both Ocean View and South Bethany, recently found out to his chagrin.

While he tried to maintain his lot in Ocean View by himself, during periodic visits, the grass had grown higher than the 8-inch limit. He received written notice that he had 10 days to have it cut or the town would have it cut. He said he understood this and had the grass cut immediately. He then provided for a lawn service for the rest of the season.

At his property in South Bethany, Saxton has an agreement with his tenant that they provide for lawn care — something he says was happening, to the best of his knowledge. He was surprised to receive both a bill and a fine in the mail from the Town of South Bethany, without so much as a warning.

He was not alone in receiving unexpected and substantial bills and fines from the town in recent months. The issue was raised at a recent South Bethany town council meeting, where some of those fined recently stated that they believed their grass had been in compliance with the code.

South Bethany updated its grass-height ordinance in the fall of 2006. There had been some confusion over enforcement issues under the existing ordinance, with both a finite limit of 10 inches on grass height and specific dates at which compliance would be checked. The new ordinance removed the enforcement dates, firming up the town’s limit of 10 inches of height for grass before fines will be assessed and the town forced to cut the offending yard at property owner’s expense.

There, also, some changes were made, with statements that the town had been “pushed into the grass-cutting business” by virtue of not having fines and fees steep enough to encourage property owners to cut their own yards instead of just letting the town do it.

Instead of varying fees for grass cutting from $50 and up, the 2006 ordinance includes a cost of $100 to $200 per incident, at the discretion of the code-enforcement official, who at that time Councilwoman Bonnie Lambertson said might lean toward $200 unless there was a reasonable emergency that prevented compliance. Additional fines can mount to $500 for egregious offenses under the 2006 ordinance.

While he agrees with the towns wanting to keep a sharp image, and for the need for citizens to abide by the rules, Saxton said he believes both can happen while still respecting the situations of the many non-resident property owners in the local coastal towns.

“I understand that we want to keep our towns looking nice, and respect the reason for the code,” he said. “However, I believe that the position taken by Ocean View is a more reasonable position for individuals who live out of town. I believe all of us want to keep our property looking nice, but I just want a chance to rectify something before I am fined for a code violation,” he said.