$500 for overgrown lawns?

$500 for overgrown lawns?

June 13th, 2011 in Opinion Free Press

It is unfortunately true that in many neighborhoods, there is at least one yard that often is overgrown with weeds and grass. Or the homeowner may fail to maintain the home, or may have abandoned vehicles in the yard. That is obviously frustrating to nearby homeowners who work to maintain their properties.

At present in Chattanooga, violators can be fined $50 in City Court. But the Chattanooga City Council is considering creating an ordinance that would set up an administrative hearing officer who could levy fines of up to $500 per violation for residential properties and $500 per day for nonresidential properties.

Supporters of the proposal say the existing $50 fine just isn't enough to get violators to clean up their act.

In some cases, that may well be true. But we wonder whether it's wise to raise the fine from $50 to $500 - a tenfold increase!

Technically, the Tennessee Constitution sets a $50 limit on the fines, and City Judge Russell Bean pointed out that voters rejected a change to the state Constitution a few years ago that would have increased the fine. But a state law enacted in 2010 lets cities set up administrative hearing officers or permit administrative law judges to handle code violations - and assess fines up to $500.

Bean worries that such an ordinance is a way to get around the state Constitution, and he says it could give too much power to unelected officials. There is also concern that there could be a constitutional challenge to the law.

Whatever the City Council decides, it should tread carefully before permitting $500 fines for violations such as overgrown lawns. Surely any such ordinance should impose such a hefty fine only on serious violators and not, for instance, on a family whose lawn got "out of hand" while the family was vacationing.

There should be reasonable fines to discourage homeowners or landlords from letting their properties get run down, which can reduce the value of nearby properties. But extremely heavy fines for minor violations should be avoided.