America the Messy Yard Police State
Will the messy yard cops seize your home cuz you didn't mow the lawn?Messy yard cops seizing homes for messy yard violations?
Phoenix-metro areas fight weed problem
by Edythe Jensen - Aug. 7, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The Valley's troubled real-estate market is challenging cities to keep abandoned properties from becoming weed-infested eyesores and fire hazards.
This week, Chandler started training volunteer disaster teams to sleuth overgrown lots.
In Phoenix, when an owner doesn't respond to cleanup requests, the city dispatches a contractor to do the job and then puts a lien on the property, hoping to get paid when it is sold. The city's "clean and lien" cases have skyrocketed from 87 in 2006-07 to 518 in 2009-10, spokeswoman Lisa Honebrink said.
For the first time this year, Glendale is using federal grants to mow and clean targeted neighborhoods. Glendale also spent city funds to buy 15 abandoned homes and is working with local non-profits to fix and sell them, said Sam McAllen, code-compliance director.
For the past year, Tempe has encouraged homeowners associations and community volunteers to trim overgrown lawns in their neighborhoods, and the informal effort is making a difference, said Jeff Tamulevich, code-compliance administrator.
At a time when municipal budgets are tight, increasing numbers of properties are neglected or abandoned, and seasonal rains spur overgrowth, officials say they have to get creative. Residents are frustrated by neighborhood eyesores. Acres of dead weeds that shot up in vacant lots after winter and spring rains now pose fire hazards, they say.
Maintenance codes in most Valley communities say weeds over 6 inches tall are considered violations. Dead weeds are deemed fire hazards.
But enforcement is difficult when properties are abandoned by borrowers but banks have not foreclosed. Often nobody takes responsibility for getting rid of weeds, and city officials say locating a legal owner can be difficult.
After last month's city budget cuts, the Chandler Fire Department took over enforcement of weed violations in vacant lots.
"Challenged with staff time to complete this much-needed activity, we turned to our volunteer corps for assistance," Assistant Chief Marc Walker said. Dozens of trained emergency responders will soon practice tactical skills on overgrown lots. Training started this week.
Walker said several hundred volunteers have undergone Community Emergency Response Team training. Some are part of a storm-response plan that the city has never had to use. The weed sleuthing will send the teams with radios and cameras down major city streets to spot and photograph overgrowth in vacant lots and report their findings to the Emergency Operations Center. Volunteers at the center will research property ownership so city fire-prevention employees can mail violation notices.
Another Chandler effort, the Pilot Front Yard Weed Abatement Program, focuses on the worst residential examples and will mark the first time Chandler uses a 2005 ordinance common in most other Valley municipalities that allows the city to "clean and lien" properties, said Neighborhood Resources Director Jennifer Morrison.
If a property owner does not respond to violation notices, the city will hire a contractor to do the job, then will file a lien against the property that's collected when the house or land sells, Morrison said. The legal process can take months, and it could be years before the city gets its money back.
As Phoenix sees the numbers of cleanup liens skyrocket, the city encourages residents to report problem yards at a special e-mail address: blight@ phoenix.gov, Honebrink said. The city also launched a free iPhone app that allows residents to photograph the problem and uses the devices global-positioning technology to direct city inspectors. The Phoenix Fire Department maps the city for inspection purposes and has firefighters seeking and reporting weed violations in assigned areas, spokesman Scott Walker said.
Tempe and Phoenix have tool-lending programs for do-it-yourself weed whackers.
City officials across the Valley agree that it's quicker and easier to get a lived-in property back in shape than it is a vacant one.