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County considers contractor to mow overgrown lots

Since April 12, the county has had 179 weed ordinance complaints

August 03, 2010|By HEATHER KEELS

Complaints about overgrown lawns and other weed ordinance violations in Washington County are coming in at such a high rate that the county is considering hiring a contractor to mow those lots, officials said.

Since April 12, the county has had 179 weed ordinance complaints, Permits and Inspections Director Daniel F. DiVito said Tuesday.

"This is something that is not going away, especially with the number of foreclosures, the properties that are being owned by banks and companies that are not around here," DiVito said.

In 2009, the county got complaints about 41 properties and in 2008, it got complaints about 26 properties, according to Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III.

If the property owner does not comply with warnings and orders to address the violation, the county currently has its highway department staff mow the land and bills the owner, Kroboth said.

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But lately, mowing overgrown properties has become too big a job for the highway department, county staff told the Washington County Commissioners last month.

"We've recognized that this is creating big problems for (Highway Department Director Edwin Plank) and his department because he's taking those people that have their normal duties, and we're taking them away from that and putting them on this, and that means what they're supposed to do is not getting done," DiVito said.

Of the 179 complaints, 41 have reached the point where they were referred to the Highway Department for mowing, he said.

The work involves not only mowing, but picking up sometimes truckloads of trash, and the highway department has had equipment damaged as a result of the work, Kroboth said.

"When you have 3-foot-tall weeds and you take a mower through there, we've had experiences where we've had damaged mowers because we've ran over the top of wells. We've had damaged mowers because we ran over horseshoe pit pegs," Kroboth said.

Such incidents have damaged bearings on three highway department mowers, costing the county $200 per set of bearings and forcing those mowers out of service for about a week for repairs, Plank said.

Crews also struggle with accessibility issues, such as being able to get a lawn mower through a narrow gate, and liability concerns, such as fear of breaking a window with a flying rock or being blamed for damage not caused by the county, Plank said.

Fortunately, the county's only expenses from mowing-related damage to properties in the past two years have been replacing two bushes, Plank said.

The commissioners agreed after the staff's July presentation to seek a contractor or set of contractors to handle the mowing. Since that meeting, county staff have been working on a request for proposals and are preparing to put the contract out to bid, Kroboth said.

The county would have to forward-fund paying the contractors until the costs are recovered, but ultimately, the expenses should be covered by fines, County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said. If not paid, the fines are collected through liens, according to the weed ordinance.

County officials still have not worked out whether the contractor would be paid by the hour, by the acre or by some other terms, Kroboth said. One municipality in Michigan has a contract that it put out to bid by requesting contractors' rates for an average-size lot, while another local government requested a mobilization fee, hourly labor fee and equipment fee, he said.

The commissioners also discussed whether the fee, currently $250 per mowing, was high enough to encourage owners to address violations themselves.

The county's weed ordinance imposes an 18-inch height limit for grass, weeds and rank vegetation, with exemptions or potential modifications for certain types of properties. Violators must cut the grass or vegetation to 5 inches or shorter, the ordinance says.

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