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County takes up weed concerns

June 22, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS and DAVE McMILLION

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- As debate continues about a Sharpsburg-area man's right to turn his yard into a "natural grassland habitat," a Washington County attorney has drafted an amendment to the county's weed-control ordinance that would allow such habitats under certain circumstances.

The Washington County Commissioners are scheduled to review the proposed amendment during their meeting Tuesday and decide whether to proceed to a public hearing on it.

The amendment is intended to "address aesthetic concerns raised by unkempt weeds while protecting the use of grasses for agriculture, pollution and sediment control, game habitat, etc.," according to a written report from Assistant County Attorney Kirk C. Downey.

With the amendment, property owners could be allowed to let weeds and grasses grow higher than the standard limit of 18 inches if they follow guidelines from a state or federal agency and provide a buffer area. Noxious weeds like poison ivy would still be prohibited.

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Dean Joyce, the Mondell Road property owner whose tall grasses prompted heated debate last summer, said Monday he thought the addition was a satisfactory compromise.

"The draft is not perfect for me personally, but I think it's a good start," Joyce said. "It will allow other green-consciously minded people to pursue a better habitat in their yard."

Neighbors who have been fighting Joyce's habitat said the tall grasses the amendment would permit are inappropriate for residential and other nonagricultural zoning districts.

"We can't understand why he can't be stopped," Mondell Road resident Patricia McNamee said.

Since moving to Mondell Road in 2000, Joyce has been allowing native grasses and flowers to grow on his 3-acre property each summer. The habitat was established under the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which provided Joyce with a grant to create a habitat for ground-nesting birds, he said.

Joyce said the natural habitat provides several environmental benefits over a traditional lawn. The warm-season grasses have a deep root system that prevents runoff and decreases the pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay, he said. The grasses absorb some of the carbon dioxide that is produced when acid rain reaches the limestone that lies below ground throughout much of Washington County, Joyce said.

Last summer, when Joyce's habitat grasses were reportedly 7 feet tall, his neighbors complained to the commissioners that weeds were spreading to their properties, requiring costly treatments, and asked the commissioners to make him cut down his habitat.

The current weed ordinance allows an exemption for "nature study areas," but does not define what a nature study area is.

After some back-and-forth about whether Joyce's property was a nature study area, the commissioners decided to require Joyce to cut his grasses. However, they granted him two extensions, and he did not cut down the habitat until November, when he would have cut it anyway, he said.

Now, Joyce says his grasses are about knee-high, and neighbors have renewed their push for the county to enforce the weeds ordinance.

"We're dealing with so many groundhogs, mice, snakes ..." McNamee said. "You can't even sit on your front porch for all this."

If the commissioners decide to proceed with the amendment, a public hearing will be scheduled for public comment on the proposed changes.

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