Bay area cities cut the grass in derelict yards, then reap the fees

Away caring for a sister, Maria Albino, 86, returned to a citation by St. Petersburg and damaged trees. Her lawn man broke his leg.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Away caring for a sister, Maria Albino, 86, returned to a citation by St. Petersburg and damaged trees. Her lawn man broke his leg.

Don't feel like mowing the lawn?

Big Brother will do it for you, but it won't be cheap.

With the housing market in the dumps, area governments have morphed into large-scale lawn maintenance services to keep up with a growing number of vacant, foreclosed or abandoned homes.

And taxpayers might up end with the bill.

In Tampa, code compliance officials predict 2009 will be a busy year.

"It's like a love-hate job," said Susan Wenrick, Tampa's code enforcement supervisor. "The people you are citing, of course, hate you. But the neighbors love you."

In St. Petersburg, overgrowth cases have increased by 15 percent since 2006, requiring more laborers to mow lawns, pick up yard litter and trim bushes.

Clearwater is so overwhelmed by neglected properties, city officials are considering creating a registration process to keep track of delinquent homeowners. "We are strong believers in the fact that violators should pay for the costs associated with their own properties," said Jeff Kronschnabl, Clearwater's director of development and neighborhood services, which oversees code compliance cases. "The taxpayers should not have to pay."

It costs Clearwater about $950 to maintain each abandoned or foreclosed house, according to a recent city analysis.

Government lawn maintenance programs aren't new, but the recent housing crash means City Hall is doing more yard work.

Most governments notify irresponsible homeowners twice and give offenders 10 business days to fix their yards before intervening.

Tampa, which contracts out its lawn care services, allows the physically handicapped or elderly to apply for hardship exemptions. The city then contacts church members or other volunteers willing to cut the lawns for free. Everyone else is charged a $175 administrative fee on top of the contractor's cleaning bill.

Clearwater hires an outside contractor to cut lawns taller than 12 inches. Violators must cover the contractor's expenses and a $200 administrative fee if they want a lien removed from their home.

In St. Petersburg, all growth visible from any public right of way must be less than 10 inches tall. Delinquent property owners are charged $40 an hour for the city's handiwork, plus a $104 administrative fee. The city's sanitation workers clean up the lawns.

St. Petersburg has one of the toughest overgrowth policies in the Tampa Bay area.

"There is no appeals process," said Todd Yost, director of the codes compliance assistance department. A special assessment, which Yost described as a "superior lien" is placed on a property after the city cleans it up. Unpaid balances are charged 10 percent in interest each year.

City leaders are aggressive about lawn maintenance because tall yards can harbor rats, snakes, mosquitoes and other unsanitary creatures that pose health and safety risks, Yost said.

Ugly lawns also can bring down property values.

"If you live there and you are maintaining the property, you would like to have the property next door, even if it's vacant, to be maintained the same way," said Ben Shirley, St. Petersburg's sanitation director.

The downside?

The government fees might not be enough to cover court costs or unpaid bills.

For example, St. Petersburg handled 5,309 overgrowth cases in 2006. Last year, that figure jumped to 6,122 cases.

In December alone, the City Council reviewed $119,128 worth of lawn improvement cases.

Affected homeowners pleaded for leniency during the council hearing.

One woman said she hadn't lived in her foreclosed home in Wildwood Heights for a year. Another pleaded ignorance. She claimed she never received any city notice about her overgrown lawn.

Michele Hess of All Season Landscaping in Treasure Island said the government fines are comparable to private lawn-mowing fees. "Sometimes a lot could be $100 or $300 or $400 depending on how large the grass is," she said. "For gas and everything, $40 an hour I would say is reasonable."

Maria Albino disagrees.

Albino, 86, spent six months in Portugal caring for her sick sister only to discover St. Petersburg had put a special assessment on her house of $324 upon her return. The lawn man she had hired before her trip broke his leg in a roofing accident and couldn't mow her grass.

But instead of clearing away the weeds and tree limbs strewn across Albino's yard, the city hacked away at her flower beds and prized papaya tree, she said. "I paid it," she said of the special assessment. "It's a lot of money for mowing."

The experience convinced Albino that she was too old to spend her days worried about a yard. She is looking for a smaller home now, preferably one without a lawn.

Times staff researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Snapshot of overgrowth policies

Tampa: Charges a $175 administrative fee on top of the contractor's cleaning bill. Allows physically handicapped or elderly people to apply for hardship exemptions. The city then contacts church members or other volunteers willing to cut the lawns for free.

St. Petersburg: Will remove all growth visible from any public right of way more than 10 inches tall. Delinquent property owners pay $40 an hour, plus a $104 administrative fee.

Clearwater: Will cut your lawn if it's taller than 12 inches. Violators must cover the contractor's expenses and a $200 administrative fee.

Bay area cities cut the grass in derelict yards, then reap the fees 01/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 8:57pm]

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