"Quality of life actually begins at home – it's in your street, around your community." – Charles Kennedy.
Many residents get fed up with overgrown grass and weeds in nearby lots. I called last week, and the grass still isn't cut. So, why doesn't the City just mow the properties or clean up the junk? Property maintenance enforcement is difficult at some homes because no one has lived in them for years, and ownership has often transferred. Even though the property is vacant, the owner is still responsible for maintaining it. Next, State law controls cities' processes when addressing overgrown lots. Because of absentee owners and state process requirements, it can take between 8 and 10 weeks from when a violation occurs until abatement (mowed).
Eliminating overgrown lots begins when a neighbor reports it to the City or the code official observes a violation. For today, let's just discuss overgrown lots.
A violation occurs once the grass or weeds reach a height of eight inches. The Code Official notifies the property owner that they have ten days to mow the lot and bring the property into compliance. Here's where the clock starts.
The code official attempts to provide notice by personal service. Suppose they cannot locate the property owner or refuse to come to the door – yes, that happens frequently. In that case, the Code Official sends notice of violation by US Post Office certified mail with return receipt requested. Depending on how many times the Post Office attempts service, this can take one to three weeks or longer before the Code Official receives the return receipt. The next step begins if the property owner signs for the certified mail. Suppose the property owner does not sign for the certified mail. In that case, the code official must publish a notice of violation in the official city newspaper, adding another week or two to the process.
It has taken between one day and six weeks to provide the property owner with the notification required by state law. And, yes, the grass keeps growing taller.
Once the property owner receives the notification of a violation, they have ten days to mow the grass and bring the lot into compliance. The property owner can request a hearing before the City Council. Add ten more days to the count, and the grass continues to grow. When the property owner requests a hearing, it is scheduled for the next city council meeting, adding another two weeks to the timeline—still growing.
Now imagine all the required steps of notification and due process are complete. The Code Official can coordinate with the Parks Department to mow the lot, taking them away from the 275 acres of mowing - parks, right of way, cemetery, and airport - they must maintain.
It took two weeks to get the lot mowed in a perfect world - one day to provide notice, a ten-day waiting period, three days to pull a city crew to mow. More common, it takes eight to ten weeks to get the lot cut – personal service, certified mail, publish, ten-day waiting period, three days to pull a city crew to mow. Now that the lot is mowed, the grass begins to grow again, and the spring through fall overgrowth cycle continues.
Over the past three years, city crews have mowed 68 lots annually due to overgrowth, costing the taxpayers over $39,000 in mowing fees, certified mail, and publication costs. The City recovers less than one-third of those costs. Unfortunately, many of the properties require multiple cuttings every year.
Other states allow for a more streamlined process, reducing the abatement time to two weeks. Kansas will require a change to state law to speed up the process. Your state representative or senator can introduce legislation to change the process; streamline it while continuing to provide due process to the property owner. Look to neighboring states and their much quicker approach. Until the legislature changes the law, please be patient as we follow state law requirements. Encourage your neighbors to take pride in their yard – keep it mowed, don't blow grass clippings into the gutter, and pick up the junk. Everyone knows their neighbors. If you have a neighbor who needs a hand, let's work together to remove blight and show visitors what a wonderful community Russell is to visit, work, live, and play.