Work session on Adoption of Grass Ordinance



Discussion of Issues Relevant to Adoption of Grass Ordinance



Messrs. Tucker, Foley, Davis, Graham, Heide and; Ms. McCulley





June 3, 2009


ACTION:     X          INFORMATION: 



  ACTION:             INFORMATION: 








The Board discussed grass/weed and building maintenance ordinances at its meeting on September 5, 2007.  After discussion about the budgetary impacts of maintenance code enforcement, the Board directed staff to proceed only with a proposed grass and weed ordinance.  (See the history in Attachments A- Prior Executive Summary and B - Board Minutes.)  Due to competing priorities with diminished resources in the Community Development Department, further work on this ordinance has been deferred until this time.  Virginia Code § 15.2-901 enables counties to regulate the cutting of grass, weeds, and other foreign growth located on vacant developed or undeveloped property, including property on which buildings or other improvements are located, that is zoned for residential, business, commercial or industrial use or is within the boundary of a platted subdivision.



Goal 1:  Enhance Quality of Life for All Citizens.  This goal includes an objective to “increase the economic vitality of the County’s development areas.”



In the current economic climate, the County is giving careful consideration before adopting new programs.  With reduced monetary and staff resources, staff is also prioritizing delivery of core services such as public health, safety and other mandated functions. 


In deciding whether to adopt a grass/weed ordinance, the Board may wish to consider the following benefits and challenges:


a.       Staff and Board members have received an increasing number of citizen complaints about tall grass.

b.       A more orderly and kempt appearance creates a positive perception of the County’s development areas and of the County in general.

c.       A grass ordinance would help enhance and protect property values.



a.       Because it is somewhat peripherally related to public health and safety, a grass ordinance may not be considered a core function.  Complaints about tall grass would not typically be considered a high priority on the Zoning Division’s priorities list (see Attachment E) unless a public health or safety issue were also present.

b.       As of June 30, the Zoning Division will have three frozen positions, including 1.5 Code Enforcement Officers.  Taking on a new program would require a reduction of some existing services such as somewhat increased response times to complaints and increased times to attain abatement of violations.  Staff would also need to implement a prioritization schedule for complaint response (Attachment E).

c.       Staff receives very few tall grass complaints.  In the past 2.5 years, only 2% of the complaints (11 of 581 complaints) related to tall grass.  Of those eleven, only five (or 1% of all complaints) could have been addressed by a grass ordinance.  Six of the eleven complaints related to occupied property, which the County is not enabled to regulate.

d.       The Natural Heritage Committee and the Water Resources staff have provided cautionary comments regarding the adoption of a proposed grass ordinance (Attachments C and D).  They believe that a grass ordinance could be detrimental to biodiversity, erosion control and water quality protection.  Allowing “natural landscaping,” while recommended to address some concerns, could prove difficult to administer.

e.       The County is limited to regulating tall grass on vacant property.  Given the County’s practical manpower limitations and all the various short-term and seasonal habitation of property, determining which property is “vacant” could prove problematic.


A grass ordinance would not address concerns about tall grass in VDOT rights-of-way such as medians.




The County Attorney’s Office has drafted a proposed ordinance similar to ordinances adopted in other Virginia localities.  If the Board decides to move forward with the adoption of a grass ordinance, staff requests direction on the following issues prior to a public hearing:


1.                   Should the grass ordinance apply to platted subdivisions in the Rural Areas?

            Staff recommends that the initial ordinance not apply to the Rural Areas zoning district.  Excluding the Rural Areas from applicability would focus this program on the Development Areas.  If the Board chooses to apply the grass ordinance to Rural Areas subdivisions, it could be limited to lots of a certain size, such as five acres or less.


2.                   Should the grass ordinance apply to undeveloped property?

            Staff recommends that any ordinance applying to undeveloped property be limited to a perimeter

            adjacent to roads and property of others.  This limitation would:

a)         better focus enforcement in impacted areas; and

b)         better protect biodiversity until the property develops. 

            Staff would work to develop a definition of “undeveloped” property in order to apply it to these properties appropriately.


3.                   Should exemptions for “natural landscaping” be created?

            Because of the potential conflicts between a grass ordinance and resource values such as natural habitat, staff recommends that an exemption be allowed for natural landscaping.  Staff would work with those people and localities with relevant expertise in drafting such an ordinance provision.


4.                   What should be maximum grass height?

            Of the nine localities surveyed, the maximum grass height ranged from unspecified (two localities) to 18 inches.  Two localities each had a maximum grass height of 12, 15 and 18 inches.  Staff recommends a maximum height of 12 inches.


Following the Board’s direction on these issues, the County Attorney’s Office could promptly finalize a proposed ordinance without significant additional work.



Assuming a workload similar to that of Stafford or Spotsylvania Counties, staff estimates this program would require a half-time position during the seven month growing season, as well as $5,000 to $10,000 annually for the County to mow tall grass.  The cost of mowing and a minimal administrative fee would be charged to the owner to reimburse the County’s costs.  Most localities surveyed have chosen not to impose civil penalties. 



Staff recommends a deferral of further consideration of this ordinance until frozen positions in the Zoning Division are restored.  If the Board chooses to move forward with this ordinance at this time, a tall grass complaint, unless coupled with a public health or safety concern on the property, would fall in the priority 4 category (see Attachment E).  For those complaints, staff would send an advisory letter and follow-up when possible.  Obviously, staff response to priority category 3 and 4 complaints would vary based on workload from both inspection requests and higher priority complaints.  Until currently frozen positions are unfrozen and filled, staff would not likely have the opportunity for proactive enforcement of zoning issues, including signs, in the Development Areas.  Staff would initially implement this program on a responsive rather than a proactive basis.



Attachment A:  Prior Report to Board

Attachment B:  Summarized Minutes from Prior Board Discussion

Attachment C:   Natural Heritage Committee Comments

Attachment D:  Water Resource Staff Comments

Attachment E:  Zoning Enforcement Prioritization

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