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City Can Fine Homeowners for Letting Grass Grow, Refusing to Mow

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on August 03, 2015 10:59 AM

Call it a case of "I fought the lawn and the lawn won." A homeowner in Howell, Michigan, has been fined after he refused to mow the grass on the curb strip in front of his house -- and the Sixth Circuit is on board with that.

David Shoemaker had refused to maintain the area between the sidewalk and street in front of his house after the city cut down a tree over his objections. Unwilling to put up with the site of unkempt, eight-inch-plus grass, Howell hired a lawn company to manicure the strip. Then they sent Shoemaker the bill.

High Landscaping Bills, Rank Vegetation

Shoemaker, already up in arms over the removal of the tree, didn't take kindly to the $600 landscaping bill. He sued, alleging that the city had violated his procedural and substantive due process rights.

The district court initially agreed with Shoemaker's procedural claims. The city ordinance prohibits homeowners from allowing "any growth of weeds, grass or other rank vegetation" to reach over eight inches high. That includes any land along the sidewalk, alley, or street adjacent to the property. According to the district court, the ordinance violated Shoemaker's procedural due process rights because it did not allow for a hearing before a court or quasi-judicial board.

The Court Will Hear Your Grass Dispute Now

A hearing before a court? Over your grass? That seems like more process than would typically be due a landscaping disagreement -- at least the Sixth thought so. The appeals court noted that Shoemaker had plenty of warnings before his fine was issued and that there was little risk of erroneous deprivation. After all, the only factual dispute would be the height of the grass, something a ruler, not a court of law, would typically resolve.

The Sixth also was not swayed by Shoemaker's substantive due process claims. Shoemaker had argued that the city violated his due process rights by forcing him to maintain the curb adjacent to his lawn. That, Shoemaker notes, is city land and should be city responsibility.

Shoemaker, however, shared an ownership interest with the city, the Sixth Circuit found. In Michigan, the owner of property which abuts a public street has a threefold property right to that street: first, as a member of the general public, secondly, as owner of a reversionary interest in the street, and finally as the owner of a right of ingress and egress to and from the street. Requiring that an owner maintain that property does not, then, violate their due process rights.

In sum, Michiganders, make sure you mow your lawn.

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