Complaints about brush overgrowing a house in a Lee’s Summit neighborhood spurred the City Council to take a closer look at its property maintenance ordinances.
Peggy Johnson, a resident living on Hunters Ridge in north Lee’s Summit, at a recent meeting showed them photographs of a house next door and pleaded for help. She said that for two years she and her neighbors tried to get the owner to trim his trees and shrubs. The garage doors are rotting and vermin live in the underbrush, she said. Neighbors have offered to help, but the owner refuses to let them on the property.
She said a lack of regulations made it difficult for the codes department to make progress on the problem, adding the situation is frustrating to her and neighbors.
“My taxes continue to go up, while potential resale value of my property goes down,” Johnson said.
She asked the council if a potential buyer would want to live next to that house.
The council had mixed reactions, but reached a consensus at the Sept. 5 meeting to have the issue assigned to one of its committees for further consideration.
“This is not an isolated case... maybe we have to have some more teeth to address these things,” Council member David Mosby said.
Other council members agreed steps are needed for extreme cases, but had reservations.
Council member Kathy Hofmann said, “What we do have to be careful of, as council members, is that we do not become Nazis on minor problems in non-HOA areas.”
She said many residents choose neighborhoods without homeowners associations because they don’t want interference with landscaping decisions or want to store boats or vehicles outdoors at home. But she agreed that particular house was more than a minor problem.
Councilman Ed Cockrell warned there are limits to what the city could do.
“There are still property rights we’re dealing with. Marching through those is something I don’t take lightly,” Cockrell said. “If they want to live like a slob, they have a right to live like a slob.”
Mark Dunning, director of codes administration, said in an interview that the city averages more than 2,000 complaints each year related to property maintenance, many of them for mowing or other nuisances. The number in 2012 was actually down, slightly, because of the drought, so grass was not growing.
Dunning estimated there are another 15 to 20 spots in the city with similar problems as on Hunters Ridge.
The ordinances are limited. The city mostly enforces grass height, which cannot be higher than 10 inches. If a landowner, after a notice, doesn’t mow, the city will hire a contractor to do it and get a lien against the property. (Sometimes it bills the owner who will pay.)
Many eyesores aren’t covered.
Wood piles in the front yard, weeds in fences or in flower beds, shaggy bushes, dead trees, or piling stuff on the porch for storage, or leaving Halloween or Christmas decorations up all year, none are outlawed by ordinance. Mere ugliness isn’t sufficient reason for the city to act.
The exception, Dunning said, is when conditions create a safety hazard. If there’s a situation that harbors vermin, the city can act, but there the difficulty is documenting infestations, he said.
The city can require owners to remove noxious weeds such as poison ivy.
There are certain exceptions in ordinances for weeds in large wooded areas or mowing agricultural land in the city. Landowners who want natural landscaping can go that route, but need a landscaping plan, showing what native species they’re planting and where. They can’t just let the yard go wild, Dunning said.
In a related issue, the city is seeing a growing number of code violations for home occupations, causing more parking on streets or landscaping companies with trailers with several mowers on board at a residence, Dunning said.
The city works most of the problems on a complaint basis, but once called to the area inspectors check on surrounding properties. Otherwise, officials will be confronted with an owner asking why he was singled out for enforcement.
“They’ll say ‘What the heck, did you look down the street?’ You’re going to end up working that case anyway,” Dunning said.
The city is working with the owner of the house on Hunters Ridge to fix problems there. Owner Bruce Burnett said the city was getting bids for removing the overgrowth.
Dunning said the city was working with Burnett to fix other code violations, removing the growth was necessary for access.
Dunning said the council would look at “What’s the minimum standard that everybody needs to live by, that’s what we’re talking about.”