It’s taken the better part of a decade, but the Jefferson County Council finally enacted regulations against tall grass and overgrown weeds.
The council voted 4-3 Dec. 9 to amend the county’s ordinances to include noxious weeds and tall grass in the list of public nuisances.
The ordinance already covered 14 other issues, including trash, demolition debris, scrap metal, derelict vehicles, tires, appliances, broken furniture and dead animals.
Noxious weeds, which are defined under state law, include kudzu, various thistles, Johnson grass and marijuana.
Tall grass in the ordinance is defined as being 20 inches or higher.
Councilman Brian Haskins (District 1, High Ridge), who introduced the amendment, said his proposal was the latest attempt in a concerted effort by council members to respond to public complaints over the years.
“It’s my understanding that they’ve been trying to pass a weeds ordinance since maybe the first year of the council (2010),” Haskins said. “I’ve been told a number of council members have proposed something like this.”
The most recent try came in the spring, but the sponsor then, Councilman Phil Hendrickson (District 3, Arnold), withdrew his proposal before it came to a vote.
“The difference this time is that this isn’t a mowing ordinance,” Haskins said. “This is an addition to the list of public nuisances.”
He said anyone driving around the county should see the need for the change is evident.
“Without it, it’s an option for people in this county to decide whether they want to take care of their property. And that doesn’t just apply to homes. This applies to commercial property, businesses,” Haskins said. “Now the county has the ability to protect the public safety, health and welfare, which is what is behind the public nuisance ordinance. The absence of this ordinance has allowed people to choose whether they want to maintain their property, which is unfair to their neighbors.”
Haskins pointed to a pair of locations in his district as examples.
“There are vacant lots in the High Ridge Commons shopping center that haven’t been mowed in seven years,” he said. “You don’t think the owner (Pace Properties) has the money? They didn’t mow those lots because it was an option.”
Haskins also described vacant, overgrown lots adjacent to High Ridge Elementary School, 2901 High Ridge Blvd., as being particularly problematic.
“You know what you’ve got when you’ve got lots with overgrown grass and weeds that haven’t been cared for for years?” Haskins said. “You’ve got rodents, you’ve got snakes, you’ve got mosquitoes – and all those are right next to a playground where more than 200 children are playing.”
He said amending the public nuisance ordinance would take care of a number of concerns about regulations involving tall grass and weeds.
“This has a number of exemptions, including for farmers and other agricultural property, for wildlife protection areas, areas under construction and areas that are being kept in their natural state,” Haskins said.
It also covers only areas in unincorporated parts of the county. Cities have the authority to come up with their own regulations.
Haskins said St. Charles County defines tall grass as 10 inches or longer.
“Ours is twice that,” he said. “We’re not talking about someone who goes on vacation and comes back and needs to mow his yard. We’re talking about years of lack of care.”
Under the code, the property owner of any public nuisance complaint is sent a letter informing them of the problem and given time to remedy it.
If the problem is not abated, the matter is referred to the Jefferson County Code Commission, which can order the county to fix the problem and attach the cost to the next property tax bill.
“There’s an appeals process with the Code Commission that will take care of any possible abuses,” Haskins said.
Council members Renee Reuter (District 2, Imperial), Charles Groeteke (District 4, Barnhart) and Jim Terry (District 7, Cedar Hill) cast dissenting votes, mainly because the county has no way to fund enforcement.
“I have no problem with the bill,” Terry said. “But right now, the county has more public nuisance problems out there that they don’t have the resources to enforce. In Cedar Hill, there are abandoned properties that need to be torn down, but the county doesn’t have the money to do that. I can agree that many people may respond favorably if they get a letter (telling them that they’re in violation) but what if they don’t? What do we do then?”
“With the budget the way it is, there’s no way to fund enforcement,” he said. “That’s my major concern. I also feel that it may not be used for its intended purpose.”
Reuter said the amendment has the possibility of causing more problems than it solves.
“If a neighbor gives us a complaint, the neighbor’s obviously unhappy, but the county has no funds to abate the problem, so if the property owner doesn’t comply, then you’ve got two people unhappy – the person who complained and the person who doesn’t want to comply, and we’ve got no way to remedy that,” she said.
However, Haskins said he believes most people will comply because a rule’s on the books.
“Most people want to follow the law,” he said. “If we’ve got people taking care of their properties because now there’s a rule, that’s free. If we’ve got people who respond because a letter brought a problem to their attention, that’s a low-cost solution. This will be complaint-driven. This isn’t about county code inspectors driving around and measuring people’s lawns.
“I believe it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.