Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Just Leave It A-lawn

Now this is what I call good news:

The law fought the lawn -- and the lawn won.

A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court panel on Tuesday ruled that a Wilkins woman doesn't have to serve a 30-day jail sentence for failing to mow her lawn and clean her pool.

If a month in jail seems excessive for an unkempt lawn, then chances are "you haven't seen what the lawn looked like," said Leonard Hill, code enforcement officer for Wilkins Township.

One may well wonder whether this "code enforcement officer" (CEO) gets paid according to the number of violations he reports, and how many violators he sends to jail. What does he say when he appears before the other township officials to report on his latest accomplishments? "This month, I sent a lady to jail for not taking care of her yard." So, how do you expect her to do anything about in while she is incarcerated? "Uhhhh..."
The town's property maintenance code requires homeowners to keep their grass lower than 10 inches. The lawn outside the home of Shawna Johnson was, at times, up to twice that height, Hill said. Though about half the front yard since has been trimmed, the rest of the lawn still is taller than 10 inches. The rubbish and dog feces mentioned in the citation Wilkins received have been cleaned up, however.
You can't say that she hasn't done anything about it. Maybe she just needs some direction and encouragement to finish the job. The CEO can drop by and tell her what she can do, and watch while she takes care of it. If he's a nice guy, he might even lend her his lawnmower. That's better than sending someone to jail over it.
"It's a public safety issue as well as a nuisance issue," Hill said, defending the ordinance. Tall grass makes a good breeding ground for rodents, and could catch fire during dry spells. Mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus could spawn in the dirty pool, he said.
Well, she might be concerned about killed endangered species. What if she cleans her pool and gets in trouble with the federal government for destroying a wetland? That's a whole lot worse than incurring the wrath of the local CEO.

A few years ago, the grass at the side of my detached garage was long when winter set in and got a little overgrown during the spring thaw. When I went out and hacked away the excess growth, I uncovered a nest containing three pink hairless newborn rabbits. Remember: "Breeding ground for rodents" is another way of saying "cute little baby bunnies". Will the CEO insist on killing any baby bunnies that are found in the overgrowth?

Hill's department began sending monthly letters to Johnson, 27, and her husband, Matthew, in December 2002. When March 2003 rolled around and inspectors saw the grass continuing to grow unabated, the Johnsons got two citations -- a $1,000 fine for the scofflawn and another $1,000 citation for not responding to the first citation.

When the Johnsons didn't pay up, a district justice sentenced them to jail. Matthew Johnson spent seven days in Allegheny County Jail in May 2004, but his wife appealed her sentence, said John Ciroli, the public defender assigned to represent her. The three-judge Commonwealth Court panel said yesterday that the Wilkins ordinance doesn't allow the town to lock people up.

Those fines may have been more than the Johnsons could afford to pay. Not everyone can just cut a check for $1000 lickety-split. I certainly can't. This is not equal treatment. Jail is for the poor.

It is a travesty that the husband has already done a week's worth of jail time for this, especially in light of the fact that he should never have been locked up in the first place. At the very least, the CEO and the district justice ought to be forced to mow the Johnsons' lawn and clean up the Johnsons' pool. That would be a true victory of the people over government oppressors.

(Wait a minute! Go back and read the last excerpt from the article. Is "scofflawn" a real word?)

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