Uncut Grass May Get $$$

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2013

FARMVILLE – If a Farmville property looks trashy it may get “cashy” for the property owner.

Particularly in the summer when the grass grows green after drenching rains this winter.

Town Manager Gerald Spates wants Town Council to consider adopting significant fines for unkempt property.

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Spates is talking about $100, $250 and $500 fines.

Such fines, he believes, will get the attention of repeat offenders and a public hearing on the proposal will be held at 6:45 p.m. prior to Wednesday night's March Town Council meeting.

Spates told council members during their November work session as the agenda moved to the property inspector's monthly report that, “If you look at (the) report, a lot of the people are repeat offenders.

“And we've gotten a couple of ordinances that we like, one from Alexandria, where you have to cut it (grass) below 12 inches. You also have to cut the grass and keep the grass maintained in between your property and the street, and that includes the curb.”

Such an ordinance would provide greater enforcement than the Town currently embraces to address unsightly property because of the fines. Farmville's ordinance addresses shaggy grass but it's teeth are lacking.

The Town currently attends to the grass cutting and bills the property owner.

“We have that on the ordinance but we don't enforce it and we end up going and having to take care of it half the time but what I like about Alexandria's (ordinance) is the fines. The first violation in a six-month period is a hundred bucks, after that it goes to $250 and then $500.”

During its December meeting, Town Council referred to its ordinance committee a proposed ordinance that would levy just such fines: $100 for the first violation within a six-month period, $250 for the second and $500 for each additional violation occurring in any six-month period.

The town manager has few doubts on the outcome, were the Town to adopt the same or similar fines.

“I think that would take care of the repeat offenders,” he told council members in November.

“You do have quite a few repeat offenders and then (the Town) has to get somebody to go cut the grass and we have to pay them and put a lien on the property,” Spates noted.

Council member Dr. Edward I. Gordon wondered about the effectiveness of that process.

“Does that work out (getting money)?” he asked.

“Yeah, we usually get it. They can't sell it (the property) or do anything with it until that lien's satisfied,” he explained, “so we record it in the courthouse.”

The Town, Spates continued, “tries to collect the money before putting a lien on the property.”

But the lien can lean a long time and a long way before the Town collects.

“We had a lien on one piece of property for $20,000 I think,” Spates recalled. “We finally got that not too long ago.”

Council member Jamie Davis wondered how many of the properties are rented, versus owned by the occupant.

“Some are rental properties,” Spates answered, later adding, “I'd say probably half of them are (rental properties). Maybe a little bit more.”

Davis observed that the stiffer fines would likely get the attention of the property owner, more so than simply reimbursing the Town for getting the grass cut.

“The (fine) would be motivating,” Davis predicted.

The Town's property inspector, Kim Sullivan, agrees with Spates' assessment.

Called for comment, Sullivan said she had just gotten off the phone with a City of Alexandria official, discussing the issue and that community's approach.

Does she believe stiff fines will help in Farmville?

“He basically summed it up in a sentence or two,” Sullivan recounted. He said he sends a warning letter like I do and then he said after they haven't complied with it in 10 days he sends them a bill for $100. And he said, 'You will get a phone call after the hundred-dollar bill.' He said they ignore the warning letter-you never hear from them after that (a warning letter). He said, 'but the money gets their attention.'

“And he said he rarely has to go past the $100 fine. Usually that gets their attention and they want to take care of it,” Sullivan said.

If the same approach is adopted by the Town of Farmville, she said, “I think that this might get quicker attention to things that need to be taken care of.”

How big a problem is unkempt property and repeat offenders in Farmville?

“It's a fairly big problem, especially during the summer months when the grass grows. Especially if we've had a lot of rain,” Sullivan said. “It's a lot, the paper work and everything you have to generate to make sure you do it legally so that you can, if you have to at some point, take them to court to collect the money you spent. It's a good amount (of work).”

As for those who appear and reappear on her property inspection reports, Sullivan observed, “You have your repeat offenders that you're always going to have. It's the same properties. And every now and again I get a new one and it's basically a landlord that lives out of state and somebody's moved out and he didn't know about it; usually they clear it up pretty quickly.”

But, she adds, “I have my core repeat offenders.”

The fines, if implemented, are meant to address that problem at its roots.