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Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 08/27/2012

My renovation saga | A citation for an overgrown yard leads to questions about definition of weeds

After taking a summer hiatus, Mary McCutcheon returns to write about the renovation she is doing to her house.

Getting a citation from Arlington County for letting my weeds grow too high was one of the most mortifying experiences of my life.  I can’t really object, since it is true that the grass and undesirable weeds have given my property a trashy look. 
Mary McCutcheon's yard was overtaken by grasses and weeds. (Photo by Mary McCutcheon)

My house plans are progressing at a painfully slow pace.  My contractor, my architect and I have agreed to get one big, inclusive permit to cover the demo, the lot preparation, the construction and the landscaping.  And since we are still fine-tuning the design as well as the heating and cooling systems, we haven’t put in our application yet.  For most of the summer one or another of us has been away.  As a result, the abandoned house remains surrounded by an ever-growing mass of weeds.  The property has a sad, neglected look.

Arlington County sent Mary McCutcheon a citation because she let her weeds grow too high. (Photo by Mary McCutcheon)
As soon as I got the notice, I went out to cut back the most offensive things like the pulpy poke weed and the highly invasive porcelain berry vines that were climbing all over the place.  And then I began to tackle the grasses and the flowering perennials that were past their prime.  I’m going to get my lawn care company to come with its industrial weed whackers to do a more thorough job and finally I’ll take a shovel to the plants that would otherwise just grow right back.   

By the deadline given by Arlington County, the place will look, if not great, at least within the guidelines. 

What are these guidelines?  Arlington County, like most jurisdictions, gives citizens a rough idea of what is acceptable and what is not.  Grass, weeds and “foreign growth” must be cut to a height of less than 12 inches.  Generally I think the rule of thumb to define a violation of this code, like the rule of thumb defining pornography, is “we know it when we see it.”  Usually this works. 

I am ashamed enough of the condition of the yard not to want to split hairs with the authorities, but I can certainly express my thoughts to my blog audience.  As sheepish and contrite as I feel right now, I nevertheless have been thinking about aesthetic and utilitarian values, about the botanical definition of “grass,” about the absolute or relative term “weed,” and about what constitutes “foreign growth.” I also have been contemplating an enforcement process that depends almost entirely on complaints and not on systematic and objective property inspection. 

Pokeweed (Photo by Mary McCutcheon)
Pokeweed is about the ugliest plant imaginable and yet, for Native Americans and early colonists, it was a reliable and nutritious early spring vegetable staple.  Ethnobotanists are hot on the trail of some of its important medicinal properties. Legal or illegal?  

Lots of people are planting ornamental grasses these days. My own pampas grass is looking splendid and is standing at least five feet high.  Just to show the juxtaposition of ornamental, overgrown undesirable grass, and a lawn, I took this picture.  The literal interpretation of the Arlington County code condemns them all to be cut to less than 12 inches. 
Good and bad grasses (Photo by Mary McCutcheon)

Other popular landscape plants include bugleweed, a good shade-loving ground cover, and Joe Pye weed, a staple in a perennial garden.  It is a nice way to attract butterflies, too.  Just because they are called “weeds” are they on the same blacklist as dandelions? 

Foreign growth might be interpreted to include those noxious, long-hated invasive alien plants such as mile-a-minute vine and white mulberry, but some are now turning against silver maples and English ivy. Pretty soon, plants such as wisteria and Norway maple could be looked upon with hostility. How do we define “foreign growth?”

I called the Arlington County code enforcement office and spoke with Dana Wilson, one of the officers in charge of interpreting the code.  He admitted that determinations of violations are “basically subjective,” are founded on a concern for safety and health, and make distinctions between things that seem to have been cultivated on purpose and things that look more like uncultivated growth.  He says he uses “eye-balling” to determine whether the property appears “neat.”  He doesn’t worry about what is or is not a grass, a weed or foreign growth.  Occasionally citations have been successfully challenged but the defendant has the burden to prove his or her plants should be allowed.

I didn’t want to discuss with him how a property is cited in the first place, because I already know the answer: Someone complains.  Complaint-driven code enforcement is a really bad idea.  I wish Arlington County would take note of the inherent problems and do periodic countywide inspections.   

Among the reasons the system is bad is that individual thresholds vary.  A neighbor will complain when the property falls below his or her idea of proper yard maintenance.  Drive around Arlington County and you will notice properties that are disgraceful and have remained that way for years.  That’s because no one complains.  These properties tend to be in low-income neighborhoods or those with transient residents.  

Meanwhile, those people with low thresholds of tolerance make sure their neighborhoods are kept within tight limits of the code.  I know of a neighborhood feud that used the complaint-driven code enforcement system as its battleground.  One person complained and the other person counter-complained.  Maybe some people have high standards or maybe they’re just grouches. 

Other people might be afraid to complain for fear of having their own yard examined too closely. Who wants to invite inspectors to the neighborhood unless one's own house is in tip-top condition?

Another reason people hesitate to complain is fear of retribution.  The recipient of the complaint naturally wonders, as one friend put it,  “Who ratted me out?” One of my neighbors was once cited for failing to keep her window frames painted.  She spent hours discussing it with her neighbors to find out who complained.  She promptly painted the windows, so the problem was solved but she never felt comfortable after that.

So, as I work away at my disgraceful property, I am filled with shame and covered with sweat but I will make sure it never sinks to this level again. 

Read more about Mary’s renovation saga

Mary McCutcheon is a retired professor of anthropology at George Mason University. This is her story of transforming her house from something she doesn’t want into something she does.

By Mary McCutcheon  |  05:30 AM ET, 08/27/2012

Tags:  renosaga

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