"Mandatory lawn-cutting? It sounds like Columbia," fumed Paulette Jones, who is looking, with her husband, for a house to buy in southern Howard County. "What's the point of having your own property if somebody's going to tell you what to do with it?"
A proposal to require county residents to keep their lawns cut was all it took to start an argument between Paulette and Ferris Jones last week.
The issues the proposed ordinance raised were ones the Takoma Park couple had been wrestling with anyway, as they stood outside a model home in a new Howard County development -- just what kind of a place they wanted to move to, just what kind of people they are.
Ferris Jones said he likes the sound of a place that encourages a little lawn maintenance, especially after six years of apartment living in a "very low-key" part of Takoma Park.
"Hey, it just means they don't want places with a lot of weeds and junk cars," he said. "It sounds reasonable to me."
County Council member Angela Beltram (D) said she was simply responding to constituent complaints last month when she introduced the measure, which would require residential property owners to trim any grass taller than 12 inches or give the local government the right to mow it for them.
Beltram said the proposed ordinance is aimed primarily at absentee owners of vacant or abandoned lots who let grass and weeds grow to the point where they become a nuisance or cause a problem for allergy sufferers.
"This is is not intended for the person who just failed to cut their lawn for a few weeks during vacation. This is for chronic nuisances," Beltram said.
"I'm sure this is one of those regulations where the county won't do something unless someone complains," she added.
The ordinance, which will be the subject of a public hearing in the county building on Sept. 17, is similar to ordinances in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties. The legislation would allow the county to impose a $50-per-day fine for violating the foot-tall limit and failing to cut the lawn to a maximum height of three inches. The fine would not be imposed until 10 days after the violator received written notice.
A provision in the proposal would allow the county, after 15 days, to cut the lawn and bill the owner. If the owner failed to pay the grass-cutting bill, the county could then put a lien on the property, Beltram said.
County public works officials have complained that they do not have the equipment or time to provide neighborhood lawn care to respond to the two or three complaints they receive each year.
But Beltram said the Department of Public Works could contract with a lawn-cutting service. "That's how we cut the grass around the county building," she said.
The way current county law is written, local health officials can only crack down on offending property owners when the lawn has become an obvious health problem.
"People who complain are usually told there's nothing the county can do," Beltram said.
Beltram said she has heard from several frustrated officials of community associations who said they were told to pursue their complaints through the courts.
The ordinance would exempt farms, wetlands, designated open space areas, naturally wooded areas, managed wildlife areas and residential lots larger than three acres.