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Commissioners consider changes to weed-control ordinance

Two visions of the future of residential subdivisions offered

Two visions of the future of residential subdivisions offered

June 23, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- As they considered potential changes to the county's weed-control ordinance Tuesday morning, the Washington County Commissioners heard feedback from people with two very different visions for the future of residential subdivisions.

One side values the suburban tradition of neat, weed-free lawns with carpets of 2 1/2-inch grass.

The other, promoted by Washington County Soil Conservation District Manager Elmer Weibley, predicts a future in which tall, native grasses are not only permitted, but could be required in parts of new residential subdivisions as an environmental management strategy.

Before the Washington County Commissioners can move forward with changes to the county's weed ordinance, they must choose between -- or find a way to meld -- these competing visions, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said.

"The difference in that philosophy is going to drive this ordinance," he said.

Facing these and other questions, the commissioners decided Tuesday to schedule a workshop to meet with groups on both sides of the debate before proceeding with a draft of the weed ordinance changes. A date has not been set for the workshop.

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The draft the commissioners reviewed Tuesday preserves most of the current ordinance but adds a section that would allow property owners to let vegetation grow higher than the standard limit of 18 inches if they use environmental management practices, follow guidelines from a state or federal agency and provide a buffer area.

The draft also attempts to clarify the definitions of "wetlands," "bird or game sanctuaries," "nature study areas," and "property used for bona fide agricultural purposes," all of which are exempt from the ordinance.

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said he didn't think the new definitions were specific enough and said he would like to see the ordinance name which agencies would certify the designations.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire had many problems with the draft, including the fact that it names the Soil Conservation District as the body that would have to certify that a property owner was following state or federal regulations. Aleshire said he would prefer a more neutral body because the Soil Conservation District has an established position on the topic.

Weibley told the commissioners that small-lot subdivisions, with their concentration of mowed lawns, present some of the biggest problem spots in his organization's efforts to protect waterways from pollution. He said in the future, stormwater management ordinances might start requiring developers to install tall grasses in new subdivisions.

The commissioners also heard from Robyn James, one of the residents who have petitioned the commissioners to take action against their neighbor, Dean Joyce, who is growing a "natural grassland habitat" on his 3-acre property on Mondell Road near Sharpsburg.

James said she is dealing with pests including snakes, mice, rats and insects, and has been told it will take three more years to recover her yard from the effects of Joyce's habitat.

Aleshire said the state agency that enforces the county's weed-control ordinance has determined Joyce's habitat is an agricultural use because there is a market for seeds from his grasses, and therefore it should be exempt from the ordinance until it is modified with further definition.

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