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Monday, August 2, 2010

$200 to Mow Your Yard: Madison Floats Grass Penalty

It's not "just a little grass," Mr. Woodring. In Madison, tall grass is Public Enemy Number One. Must be leftover psychological baggage from our ancestors coming across the plains and nearly going mad at the sight of that endless sea of waving grass, broken only by the occasional Indian passing by to look at the wagon and say, "Hey, whitey, you gonna leave that eyesore parked there much longer?"

The Madison City Commission gives first reading tonight to the latest lawn-mowing ordinance. The proposed ordinance would revise Section 12-22 to attack grass longer than six inches thus:

Any person violating any of the provisions of this article shall be subject to both criminal and civil sanctions. The City, at its election, either proceed criminally for a violation of this article with a maximum punishment as provided by Ordinance for each day the violation exists, and the City may, at its option, cause the property to be mowed at a cost of $200.00 per mowing and to bill the cost and expenses of such mowing to the property owner. That the penalty for any citation issued by the City of Madison for a violation of Section 12-20 shall be twenty five ($25.00) dollars per violation.

Ignore sloppy style and form for a moment.* $200? To mow your yard?! I'm thinking that I could probably come and mow any normal yard in town for $50. Even if the City brings along a kid with a weedeater to trim the edges and make things look really nice (and that's Madison's obsession), $200 is clearly not just cost and expenses; there's a built-in penalty there.

Let's compare that penalty with what the City of Madison may currently fine you for some other offenses:
  • Disorderly Conduct (e.g., brawling, rioting, walking around drunk, flipping Officer Lurz the bird): $500 max or 30 days in jail (city ordinance section 13-3).
  • Taking pictures in the Community Center locker room: $500/30 days (13-18).
  • Shooting a gun, crossbow, or fireworks in city limits: $500/30 days (13-31).
  • Parking ticket: $10... and you get 72 hours before the city jacks the fine up to $25 (13-41).
  • Driving your truck or tractor-trailer on Sw 1st St. west of Hyland without making a delivery thereto: $200 or 30 days (11-135).
  • Parking in handicap space: $100 min (11-161).
  • Parking too long: $3... $10 if you don't pay within 72 hours (11-191).
  • Doing a U-turn to park: $20 (11-162).
  • Using a Jake brake: $500/30 days (11-163).
  • Not stopping your car when the crossing guard tells you: $200/30 days (11-326).
Commenters, please remind me: how bad is tall grass? Is it really just as bad as endangering children by not stopping your car when the crossing guard waves his sign?

I assume the city will show some restraint in sending out the mowing crew. We've had some rainy stretches this summer when it's been too wet to mow for a week or more at a shot. Will the city send Ted LaFleur out to verify a lawn is dry enough to mow before the grass crew fires up the engines and tears across the ground? Will the city be responsible for ruts left on muddy yards when the city sounds the alarm on someone's 6.5-inch grass? Will they take time to avoid newly seeded patches so as not to crush the new green shoots? Will the city bear responsibility for rocks thrown up by city mowers through folks' windows or other common mower damage?

Perhaps the city should reconsider authorizing city maintenance crews to drive dangerous machinery across private property. Perhaps they should rewrite the ordinance to stick with a nice, safe $25 ticket. Or perhaps they should stop measuring people's grass and instead focus on paving our gravel streets and kickstarting job growth?

I make this promise: if I ever move to town, it will be for two reasons: first, to plant my entire yard to native prairie grass and vegetables; second, to run for city commission and end the city's obsession with lawn mowing.. and banners... and slogans... and all image-over-substance thinking.
*Style and form: Notice that the second sentence is clearly missing an important auxiliary verb. Shall proceed? May proceed? The last clause isn't even a complete sentence. And if you're goping to do the lawyerly redundant writing of numbers in words and figures, shouldn't you do it on every dollar figure?

Update 2010.08.03: The city commission says $200 is an hourly charge for mowing. Hourly. Holy crap: I probably won't make that much here in South Dakota even with my doctorate in information systems. Forget IT management or college teaching; I'm investing in a lawn mower!


  1. When nature is outlawed, only outlaws will have nature.

  2. This sounds like a retroactive city wide home owner's association (HOA) by-law. If people are really so concerned about grass height they should move to an HOA area. No need to change the rules for everyone.

    Perhaps the city is hoping to increase property values city wide so that they can derive more revenue from property taxes? That is the normal function of HOAs.

  3. I float this analogy for conversation: is requiring me to mow my lawn to my neighbor's standards to increase my neighbor's material wealth anything like conscripting my labor, say, forcing me to work a couple hours a week for Amert Construction to help them finish the East River building faster and cheaper?

  4. When I buy a house (someday), I'm going to rip out the grass and put in AstroTurf... just like the Brady Bunch!

  5. I live in St. Paul, where there is also a law/fine for long grass (also in the form of billing you to have the city mow your lawn). The fine Madison is proposing is right in line with what it is in St. Paul.

    St. Paul will also fine you if you get graffiti, which is totally outrageous, and required weeks of argument on my part in order to avoid paying it.

    On the positive side, St. Paul Animal Control is SUPER friendly and helpful. They were able to answer obscure licensing questions for me, and have been incredibly sympathetic and responsive to loose dog complaints.


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