Last Updated: Jan 8th, 2015 - 07:42:25

Colonial Heights cracks down on tall grass
By James Peacemaker, Jr. Managing Editor
Jun 14, 2013, 14:45

COLONIAL HEIGHTS — City residents with unkempt yards will no longer have to wait for neighbors to report them.

While the city historically has just reacted to complaints about tall grass, it is now conducting regular sweeps twice a month to crack down on those who let their lawns get taller than 12 inches. Code enforcement officers did their first city-wide review last week and found 263 violations.

City Council will also consider ordinance changes that make it easier for staff to issue fines and have contractors cut the grass.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, City Manager Thomas L. Mattis said the change in enforcement is in response to City Council’s wishes to make Colonial Heights more attractive as a whole.

“Part of that challenge is properly walking that line between being a supportive government that works with people or being an imperialistic, overbearing government,” Mattis said.

Director of Community Development George Schanzenbacher said grass enforcement began in 2007 and violations have increased every year since then. There were 124 violations in 2007, 217 in 2008, 247 in 2009, 405 in 2010, 591 in 2011, and 645 in 2012.

He said nearly a third of the violations have been for property owners who do not live in the city. Many of the violations have been in the southwest part of the city.

The city is now divided into six zones for building code inspectors to patrol. They will also be looking for other violations in addition to grass. The city-wide sweep last week took about 21 total staff hours to complete.

Currently, certified letters are sent out to violators, which can take two days to verify. Inspectors will look at the property again in 10 days after the certified letter receipt comes back. If the grass is still uncut, a contractor is called in to cut the grass within 48 hours.

The whole process can take about two weeks.

The city began hiring contractors to cut the grass in 2011. That year there were 20 yards cut. In 2012, there were 54.

The cost to cut the yard is passed on to the homeowner. A typical yard costs $45 to cut, but can be $50 more for excessive height or debris. By state law, the city is not allowed to assess a fee for the administrative costs.

For anyone who refuses to comply, they can be fined up to $500 but only after they are convicted in court, and a judge could decide the penalty, likely much lower than the maximum.

But Schanzenbacher said the city has never had a fine for uncut grass.

Councilman Kenneth Frenier said he has talked to two people who have gotten letters.

“They think it is a great deal to [pay] $45 having to get their grass cut every six weeks or however often you catch them. … They are getting a bargain,” he said.

Schanzenbacher said there are some still some issues that need to be worked out with enforcement, such as not having a clear standard as to when to apply the rules. For example, is it a violation of one clump is taller than 12 inches?

Shrubs are not a violation and neither is property that has vegetation in a natural state.

In addition to the change in enforcement philosophy, City Council will also consider a change at its July 9 meeting to make it easier to fine grass violators.

The biggest change is that fines would become a set amount: $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second, and a minimum of $300 and maximum of $500 at the court’s discretion for the third and following offenses.

The change will make it so that no notice will have to be given for the second and following offenses.

The change would also simplify the way individuals can be notified -- either in person, through certified or first-class mail or by publishing a notice in the newspaper, or by simply posting a notice on the front door if the homeowner lives there. The costs can be passed on to the violator, and if not paid in 30 days, penalties and interest can be collected by the Treasurer’s Office.

Trash cans

At its May regular meeting, City Council reversed course on an ordinance change that would have forced residents to keep trash cans out of their front yards.

The change would have imposed a $50 fine if they were left out.

At the meeting, several residents spoke out against the planned change, saying it was an overreach by the government.

City Council approved the change 4-3 on first reading at its April meeting. In this initial vote, Kenneth B. Frenier, Mayor C. Scott Davis, Diane Yates and John T. Wood supported the change while Milton Freeland Jr., Joe Green and Gregory Kochuba opposed it.

On the second reading at the May meeting, which is necessary to make the change official, Wood changed his vote, saying he feels the penalties are too harsh.

The change failed with a vote of 3-4.

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