Sharpsburg habitat ruled in violation of weed ordinance

September 17, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

SHARPSBURG -- A Sharpsburg man who has been growing a small-plot habitat on his property for eight years has been notified that the 7-foot high grasses in his yard violate Washington County's weed control ordinance.

The Washington County Commissioners' decision on the matter, if unchallenged, will force Dean Joyce to mow his yard or pay stiff fines.

Some of Joyce's neighbors applauded the commissioners' decision last week, saying the habitat looks terrible, spreads weeds into adjoining yards and is inappropriate in a subdivision.

Joyce has argued that his property is a nature study area and, therefore, should be exempt from the county's weed ordinance.


He called the commissioners' decision "a blow to conservation efforts across the county."

Joyce has been letting the grass grow in his yard on Mondell Road since 2000, when he moved into the house and decided to turn his 3-acre property into a natural grassland habitat.

An immigrant from Australia, Joyce said he wanted to learn more about the flora and fauna of the United States.

The property contains several kinds of grasses and flowers, all of which are native species, Joyce said.

For the past five years, Joyce's yard has been part of the USDA's Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), which offers technical assistance and funding to help private landowners create fish and wildlife habitats.

After a tour in July, Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Jeff Semler called Joyce's grassland habitat "impressive."

"Your meadow restoration area has been skillfully and thoughtfully implemented," Semler wrote in a letter to Joyce. "(The habitat is) exactly the type of management that WHIP programs are supposed to foster."

Joyce's neighbors, however, don't see things the same way.

Robyn Jones, who lives near Joyce, said she has spent more than $5,000 killing weeds that have spread from Joyce's yard and $2,000 to till and reseed a four-acre paddock adjacent to Joyce's property.

In a meeting with the county commissioners Sept. 9, Jones questioned the value of Joyce's habitat, saying "he just doesn't want to cut his grass."

In the meeting, Jones and several other Mondell Road residents asked the commissioners to make Joyce cut down the habitat.

They said because the property no longer was protected by the WHIP program it should not qualify as a nature study area.

The USDA decided not to renew Joyce's five-year WHIP contract when it expired in August.

Washington County's weed ordinance prohibits "grass, weeds or other rank vegetation" higher than 18 inches.

It exempts, among other things, "nature study areas," but does not define what a nature study area is.

As his contract with WHIP was coming to an end, Joyce began talking with the University of Maryland to use the property as a demonstration area for the Woods in Your Backyard program, which teaches people how to grow small habitats on their property.

Jonathan S. Kays, who is in charge of the Woods in Your Backyard program, said Joyce's participation in the program should be enough to exempt Joyce's property from the weed ordinance.

After finding out last month about Joyce's involvement with the Woods in Your Backyard program, the county seemed to agree.

"It has been determined that you do not need to remove the grasses or "natural area" that was previously cited for being in violation of the Washington County Weed Ordinance," Washington County Zoning Coordinator Kathy A. Kroboth wrote in a letter to Joyce dated Aug. 21, one day before Joyce's WHIP contract was set to expire.

The letter went on to say, "...Your property is and/or will be used as a demonstration area (under the Woods in Your Backyard program) which qualifies as a 'nature study area' under the Weed Ordinance."

The county reversed its stance this month, however, after learning that no contracts would be required under the Woods in Your Backyard program.

The issue, several commissioners said, was that without a contract there would be no maintenance standards for the habitat and no outside agency enforcing those standards.

The commissioners on Sept. 9 decided to enforce the county's weed control ordinance on Joyce's property. The county sent a letter to Joyce on Friday saying he is in violation of the ordinance, Assistant County Attorney Andrew F. Wilkinson said.

Kays said although there are no contracts associated with Woods in Your Backyard, the program should be enough to exempt Joyce's property.

"These are volunteer relationships, but that's what the extension does," Kays said. "We all talk about global warming, fossil fuels, wildlife habitats. (The commissioners' decision) sends a chilling message."

Several commissioners said they support efforts to create small-plot habitats but questioned whether they should be allowed in subdivisions.

The WHIP program modified its guidelines in 2006 prohibiting contracts for properties in subdivisions.

Some commissioners said because Joyce's property is no longer under any contract, the ordinance had to be enforced.

"Under the federal contract, it was exempt," Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said. "Without that contract, we have to take a literal interpretation of the ordinance. It's the best we can do."

Aleshire and others said they would like to update the ordinance to define nature study areas.

Joyce said he is not sure if he will argue the decision. He said in an e-mail that he would like to meet with the commissioners to discuss the matter.

He has discussed selling his property to the government in an effort to preserve the habitat, and he has started collecting seeds from the property in case it is mowed.

Antietam National Battlefield Superintendent John W. Howard has asked Joyce for seeds from the habitat that Howard said will be replanted on the battlefield.

"It sounds kind of dorky to say, I guess, but he's got some of the best blue stem grass I've ever seen. The growth he has is just outstanding," Howard said.

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