The Grass Gestapo Is Out of Control: 30K in Fines and Potential Foreclosure for a Too-Long Lawn
A few weeks ago, I noticed a woman standing in my neighbor’s yard doing something I thought was pretty damn strange: she was measuring blades of grass with a tape measure.
Then I noticed the city truck parked on the street.
Turns out, the woman was with codes compliance or whatever they call it…apparently, her job is to drive around looking for reasons to harass and extort people for things like tall grass.
When I realized who she was and what she was doing, my next thoughts were “Are there not real problems in this city that need attention? There are people who drive around and measure grass for a living? And these employees are paid with taxpayer money…to extort taxpayers?”
It isn’t like there aren’t real problems in this city. Like most regions in the US, there are things like potholes, traffic light outages, crime, and other random issues that, to a logical thinker, seem more pressing than the height of residents’ lawns.
Since when did having tall grass become a crime?
In many parts of the United States, allowing your grass to reach a certain height will lead to an unpleasant visit from the Grass Gestapo. I know, because it happened to me a few days after I spotted the Lawn Police measuring my neighbor’s grass. We were the lucky recipients of a letter informing us that OUR grass was too tall and that if we didn’t address the “violation” there would be consequences.
So, we mowed the grass and thought the issue was resolved.
A few weeks later, we got another letter from the city. Apparently, we are now on some kind of lawn maintenance watch list.
Here is an excerpt from the second letter. I have added my own observations and commentary (the parts in bold and italics):
An inspection of the above described property (so much for private property – pretty sure this is trespassing) was conducted and the following violation of the [redacted for privacy] municipal code was observed:
On 06/25/2019 you were sent a letter stating the following violation. Once again on 07/23/2019 I inspected your property and the grass and weeds were again exceeding the allowed 7 inches. (Again, this woman admits she trespassed on our property)
All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 7 inches in height. All noxious weeds shall be prohibited. Weeds shall be defined as all grasses, annual plants, and vegetation, other than trees or shrubs provided; however, this term shall not include cultivated flowers and gardens. (Now every property “owner” is expected to be able to identify noxious weeds and other plants? I’m surprised the city hasn’t hired botanists to come out to identify each and every piece of vegetation on every yard and fine us per plant.)
Any owner of agent having charge of a property who fails to cut and destroy weeds after service of a notice violation, they shall be subject to prosecution in accordance with (code redacted) and as prescribed by the authority having jurisdiction. Upon failure to comply with the notice of violation, any duly authorized employee of the City or contractor hired by the City shall be authorized to enter upon the property that is in violation and cut and destroy the weeds growing thereon, and the costs of such removal shall be paid by the owner or agent responsible for the property. (Translated: We will trespass on “your” property whenever we want, and there is nothing you can do about it.)
Also in accordance with state statutes (redacted for privacy), if weeds are allowed to grow on the same property in violation of (code redacted) more than once during the same growing season, no additional notification is Department of Planning and Community Development required and the weeds will be cut by a contractor employed by the City with the cost thereof placed as an additional special tax on the property if it is not paid within 30 days of receiving invoice.
Additionally, if it is determined that compliance is not met, a citation may be issued in the (redacted) court which will require an appearance in Court and may include a fine of up to $1000 per day (What the heck?) that the violation is allowed to occur. (This is extortion. What if a property owner is disabled or injured and can’t afford to hire lawn service? What if they are in the hospital? What if they just happen to like tall grass?)
The letter included copies of photos the Grass Police took of our yard.
A man may lose his home due to the height of his grass.
While some people might think “Well, just cut your grass regularly and the government will leave you alone,” it isn’t always that simple.
Jim Ficken knows this all too well.
The city of Dunedin, Florida, is trying to steal his home because the grass was too tall.
The Institute for Justice (IJ) – known as “the National Law Firm for Liberty” – is helping Ficken fight the government in court.
Here is a summary of the case:
In May 2018, Jim left his home in Dunedin, a Tampa Bay suburb, to go to South Carolina to work on settling his late mother’s affairs. While Jim was out of town, the man he paid to cut his lawn unexpectedly died. Grass grows quickly in Florida, and the lawn soon grew longer than the ten inches allowed by the city. The city immediately began fining Jim, having classified him as a “repeat offender” because of a warning he got back in 2015. Jim finally found out he was being fined when a code inspector told him he would be getting “a big bill.” Jim then immediately cut the grass, figuring he would be fined no more than a few hundred dollars.
It was $500 per day—the same as the fine for driving 50 mph in a school zone. And the city assessed it every day for over 57 days. With fees loaded on top, the total fine was nearly $29,000. That’s not the kind of money Jim has lying around. He begged the city to reconsider—to fine him something fair—but the city refused.
Come February, it was time to pay up. The city gave him 15 days to come up with $29,000, otherwise the city was going to get its money another way: by foreclosing on his home. And on May 7, that’s just what the city voted to do. (source)
Ficken is not the only American who is being subjected to this kind of treatment, IJ goes on to explain:
No one should lose their home because they let their grass grow too long. In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that governments cannot impose excessive fines. And losing your home because the grass was too long is excessive. Jim is nearly 70 and on a limited income. Fining him $29,000 is outrageous. And it’s part of a wider trend: all over America, local governments are padding their budgets by assessing crippling fines on their own residents.
That’s why Jim and the Institute for Justice are fighting back in court. It’s not just about Jim’s home in Dunedin, Florida. It’s about ensuring—for everyone—that abusive governments can’t trump the Constitution. (source)
Ficken filed a lawsuit against Dunedin and members of its Code Enforcement Board. He’s seeking $1 in nominal damages, attorneys fees, and injunctions that would relieve him of the fines. The suit also hopes to end Dunedin’s practice of fining people “without considering a homeowner’s ability to pay.”
“The City had the authority to mow Jim’s grass and send him a reasonable bill,” the filing points out. “Upon information and belief, the City did not do so because it prioritizes revenue over code compliance.”
Some might think cities are justified in fining people who do not maintain their lawns. But if one is concerned about the appearance of a neighbor’s yard (property values and all that), why not…go over and offer to mow the grass yourself? That seems like a neighborly thing to do, doesn’t it?
Is a $29,000 fine – or a person losing their home – proportional to having tall grass for a few weeks?
Does this sound like something that should happen in a free country?
Fining people $500 a DAY is unconscionable and frankly, downright cruel.
People are outraged over how governments are treating property owners.
Thankfully, Fricken’s story has received a lot of attention, and a lot of people are angry about how the city is treating him.
In May, it was reported that the mayor of Dunedin and other city officials received multiple threats of violence in response to the case.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is now investigating after the mayor of Dunedin and other city officials received multiple threats of violence in response to a viral story about a citizen being fined nearly $30,000 for not cutting his grass, according to Dunedin City Manager Jennifer Bramley.
People from across the country unleashed their anger on the city of Dunedin by phone and by email this week.
“This is repeat violations. There were 15 of them and we intervened on behalf of the neighborhood. We are not putting him out on the street without a home. He has 4 homes,” Bramley said.
Bramley is speaking out on behalf of Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski who has been the target of threatening phone calls to her home. The person on the other end threatened harm to the mayor and her family.
“There have been threats to the code enforcement board, the code enforcement division, to city hall, the city manager’s office. Physical threats,” Bramley said.
One emailer wrote: “I hope someone burns your city hall to the ground.”
“We’re going to come down there and visit you, a whole bunch of us,” someone said in a voicemail.
Bramley says some workers are concerned.
“A lot of our employees are frightened to come to work,” Bramley said. (source)
A few weeks after the city reported it was receiving threats, this story broke…
The city of Dunedin has hired a crisis PR firm after coming under fire from the public for moving to foreclose on a homeowner who could not pay nearly $30,000 in fines for tall grass.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern found a month-long city contract with the firm, Sachs Media Group, will cost taxpayers $25,000. (source)
Let’s get this straight: the city is threatening to take a man’s home because his grass was tall. The city faces public scrutiny and backlash for its actions. The city then adds insult to injury by spending $25,000 in taxpayer money to try to save face.
Have we reached peak government stupidity yet?
Ron Sachs, CEO of Sachs Media Group, told the I-Team the following:
“The city’s doing its job the way it’s supposed to do. And it’s making sure your neighborhood is protected and your community quality of life is protected, and the reason they’ve asked for our help is to help them message most effectively the facts and the truth, because some news organizations are not fully and fairly reporting this story.”
Sachs called Ficken, “a chronic scofflaw, who ignores code enforcement notifications and has enjoyed being a scofflaw, being a bad neighbor who doesn’t even live in the home in question.” (source)
Ari Bargil, Ficken’s attorney, defended his client:
“Jim lives in the property, he’s been living there for years. So the extent that the city is suggesting otherwise, it’s just untrue. With respect to previous code violations, I think the city’s putting a really colorful gloss on what actually happened. In every instance in which Jim has received a notice to correct any sort of alleged violation on his property, he’s done it. He was never fined once by the city. He’s been compliant every single time. This is the first time they’ve ever fined him and they decided that they were going to go nuclear,” said Bargil. (source)
John Stossel spoke with Ficken and Bargil:
Governments imposing excessive fines is a widespread problem.
I have yet to figure out who exactly is harmed by tall grass, but it isn’t the only petty “offense” that governments are fining people for.
Slapping unsuspecting individuals with ridiculous fines and fees is becoming increasingly common, as IJ reports:
Ultimately, this case is bigger than Jim. In 2007, the entire amount of fines that Dunedin imposed for code violations was $34,000—only a little more than the amount the city is now demanding for Jim’s lawn alone. A decade later, in 2017, the city was raking in 20 times as much, about $700,000. In fiscal year 2018, it collected almost $1.3 million in total fines.The city’s code‑enforcement attorney—the one who refused to negotiate with Jim—calls the system a “well‑oiled machine.”
It represents a larger trend: governments imposing crippling and excessive fines and fees and then using abusive tactics to collect. For example, Florida is considering taking away the restored voting rights of felons who haven’t been able to pay court fees. Nationwide, about forty states will take away your driver’s license if you owe certain fees to the government. In the most egregious cases, a city might even give a private prosecutor a financial incentive to go after minor code violations and then charge residents for their own prosecutions (source)
It seems that governments seek out opportunities to steal property.
Consider the following examples.
In 2011, Eileen Battisti lost her home over an unpaid $6.30 tax bill. Yes, you read that figure right. No, it is not a typo. When Battisti’s husband died, she used the proceeds from his life insurance policy to pay off the mortgage but struggled to keep up with some other bills. She missed a property tax deadline by six days but eventually paid the original bill of $833.88 plus the penalty and late fees. However, she was unaware that additional interest of $6.30 had accrued – that amount was not included on the last bill she received.
In 2010, Battisti was late again with her county tax payments. She again settled up, paying interest and penalty in full for 2010. The $6.30 from 2008 remained unpaid and Battisti claims that she was not made aware of the balance. By 2011, the amount due from the 2008 tax bill had ballooned to $255.84. County officials proceeded to put Battisti’s home up for sale.
Battisti’s home was eventually sold at sheriff’s sale for nearly $120,000. After taxes, interest and costs deducted from the sale, Battisti was entitled to just $108,039 from the proceeds. She was not entitled to her home. (source)
When I first heard about Battisti’s case several years ago, it was quite the wake-up call. For the first time, I realized that we really do not have any true property rights here in the US.
Thankfully, in 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Battisti was entitled to her home because she was not given clear notice of the amount due. But can you believe this case had to be taken all the way to the state’s highest court – and that it took 3 years for Battisti to get her home back?
Last month, a woman in New Jersey was facing the prospect of losing her house in Cranford – that she has lived in since the 1940s – because of delinquent property taxes. Rose Estwanick is a 106-year-old widow who suffers from a plethora of physical ailments as well as dementia. Estwanick’s daughter created a GoFundMe campaign for her mother, in which she shared the tragic details of the situation:
Having checked with our municipal tax office, we cannot defer property taxes. The State of New Jersey has no hardship exemptions for centenarian homeowners on social security income. We have one option available to avoid the Cranford Township Tax Sale scheduled for September 18, 2019: Make a minimum PAYMENT OF $8,367.18. (source)
On the bright side, Estwanick’s fundraising campaign has raised over $22,000 so far, exceeding the $12,000 goal her daughter established.
All of these cases shed light on a troubling reality: we truly do not own anything.
As Daisy Luther eloquently states in Are We Really Free? Maybe It’s Time for a Personal Declaration of Independence:
How independent are any of us, really? We like to think we live in the “free-est” nation in the world, but do we really? Think about it.
You never own your home outright, even when the mortgage is paid off. Every year, you must make your extortion payment to the city or trust me, you won’t be living in that house for long.
The same thing with your car. If you don’t pay your annual extortion payment on your vehicle and pay a hundred bucks for a tiny sticker that gives you permission to drive it, it will be promptly towed away by the city with the government’s blessing. Then, like a hostage negotiation gone wrong, you’ll have to pay even more money to cover their theft and storage of YOUR vehicle.
On a regular basis, you must pay a fee and ask the government for permission to do any number of things, such as driving a car, traveling outside the country, running a business, adding another bathroom to your home, or even catching a fish for dinner.
Permits and licenses are big revenue generators from start to finish – and if you proceed without asking permission, they will extort more money from you in the form of fines. If you refuse to pay the fines (or if you can’t) they’ll kidnap you and lock you in a cage, where you’ll be forced to perform manual labor for 10 cents an hour for whatever length of time the legal authorities feel is sufficient to teach you a lesson.
There are places in our nation where you can’t use your property the way you want. There are areas where you cannot collect the water that falls on your land. There are places where you aren’t allowed to detach your home from the grid. There are places that dictate where your vegetable garden can grow (or even if you’re allowed to have one), places that won’t allow you to hang your clothes out to dry, and places that make it illegal to sleep in your car.
The bottom line is, some places in the United States are freer than others, but we’re all still serfs paying fealty to lords. (source)
Perhaps a little – no, a lot – of rebellion is in order.
What if people started refusing to pay these exorbitant fines?
What if people started helping each other – reaching out to each other to offer help, mowing each other’s tall grass, and offering other forms of assistance?
What if we all worked together to protest massive government overreach and showed tyrants that we aren’t going to put up with their coercion and bullying tactics anymore?
There is power in numbers.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.
The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. –