Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When Ignorance of "Noxious" is Obnoxious

Summer is that time of year in Norristown when a code enforcer's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of overgrown lawns and gardens.

Warm weather, as it so often does, came fairly suddenly this year. A month ago, the morning temperatures were still cold. Only the bulb plants were blooming. As soon as the nights heated up a little 2 weeks ago, boom, the grass sprouted up 6 inches practically overnight. The dandelions, ground ivy and other wildflowers all bloomed within a few days. This happens every year; no one should be surprised by it.

That was in mid-May, early in the week. It was also fairly predictable that most of Norristown would mow their lawns the next weekend. This is reasonable--a lot of residents don't get home from work until it's nearly dark, and after a tiring day at work, who has the energy to mow anyway? The homeowners who didn't mow that weekend were mostly landlords who don't visit their properties and had no clue the grass was getting long, and owners who NEVER mow, and seem to never get cited for it.

However, on at least one block on W. Freedley ALL the houses got citations that week. It was as if one of the code enforcers, noticing the longer grass, decided to take advantage of the opportunity to write up citations, without giving any of the homeowners a reasonable amount of time (that is, the weekend) to mow. Frankly, if all the houses on a block are cited, especially if those houses, like the ones on W. Freedley, are normally neatly kept, the problem is with the enforcer, not the homeowners.

Poison ivy 
Furthermore, the citations were all for "noxious weeds." Now, according to the US Bureau of Land Management, a noxious weed is "any plant designated by a Federal, State or county government as injurious to public health, agriculture, recreation, wildlife or property."  Norristown, as far as I've been able to find out, follows the state designations for noxious weeds, which can be found at the USDA website. If you click on the name, you can view photos of what these weeds look like. The only one I've ever seen in my yard is thistle. I've seen the wild multiflora rose in my neighborhood. Cannabis is on the list and there's pretty good odds more than one person in town has it growing, on purpose, somewhere on their property. The rest of the list is unlikely to be found in town, though I'm fairly certain our code enforcers aren't trained in plant recognition.

One homeowner on W. Freedley said that their lawn had been mowed, but the dandelions had sprouted up after and she received a citation. Dandelions aren't noxious weeds. Quite a few people in town use them as a food source. They're also one of the first food plants in spring for honeybees. I could see citing someone who has a mess of dandelions growing out of their sidewalk (not for noxious weeds, but for unkempt property), but in a lawn, code enforcement needs to lay off if the lawn is kept mowed. That goes for other wildflowers, too. I have several on my property that I grow intentionally, like the patch of spearmint next to my back fence. If flowers like buttercups or yarrow or whatever bloom in someone's lawn and the owner chooses to mow around them until the flowers die, I don't see a problem with it as long as the grass is cut.

There are a few plants I'd suggest Norristown add to its definition of "noxious weeds"--poison ivy, for one. There are places in Norristown where you can't walk down the street because great masses of poison ivy are hanging from fences or trees. That's a public health problem, yet people never seem to get cited for it. Ragweed, too, is all over town (including my backyard). It's not dangerous if you keep it mowed. Maybe only cite people who allow it to bloom. We'd all save on sinus medicine. And if you have kids in your neighborhood, it's a good idea to pull out deadly nightshade vines and pokeweed bushes--the ripe berries are tempting and can make children pretty sick, especially younger ones. If you remove any of the above, DON'T compost the plants or allow them to be mulched. Put them in your regular trash cans so they go far away to a landfill and can't come back to spread their seeds around Norristown.

Deadly nightshade 
Joe Januzelli is the director of our Codes Department. He seems like a nice, reasonable guy. I know when I've contacted him about code issues, he gets back to me fairly soon. I think the main problem isn't him, but a code enforcer or two who are a bit too Type-A-personality sometimes, and who aren't trained in recognizing plants. And of course, on the other side of the coin are all the property owners who don't maintain their lawns, gardens and sidewalks, thereby ruining it for the rest of us who do.

If you get a citation you don't think you deserve, take a photo of the spot that's supposed to be offensive, maybe using a ruler to show the height of your grass or whatever, and email it to with your explanation. But you can also help him out but taking photos of overgrown properties and email them to him with the addresses.

Pokeberry bush
I would suggest to the Codes Department that code enforcers also carry rulers and take photos with the ruler when citing overgrown lawns. And if longer grass is seen on a lawn of a usually well-kept house, give the owners the weekend to mow it before citing them. If we get a weekend of storms, give them a few extra dry days. If the grass is still too long after that, fine, write them up.

If you've got an elderly or disabled person in your neighborhood who can't seem to keep up with their lawns and weeds, give them a hand if you're physically able to do so. Most of us have small lots and it wouldn't take too long to run your mower over your neighbor's lawn or pull a few weeds out of their sidewalk. Here's a tip: on a hot, sunny day, pour a little vinegar on your sidewalk weeds. The heat of the sun on the vinegar should kill most of them. If not, try reapplying it for a few days.

I think if both the homeowners and Codes Department stay reasonable where property care is concerned, and keep the channels of communication open, citations can be avoided, except to those folks who truly deserve them.

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