Who Are the Toughest Lawn Enforcers in the Research Triangle?

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John Egan

Your next-door neighbor’s overgrown grass is bugging you. First of all, you’re tired of seeing it day after day. It’s just plain ugly. Secondly, grass that’s too tall can serve as a refuge for creatures -- snakes and rats, among others -- that you don’t want lurking in your neighborhood.

To deal with scenarios like that one, towns throughout the Raleigh-Durham, NC, area employ code enforcers to lay down the lawn law. These lawn enforcers are empowered to write up homeowners for grass violations -- violations that can result in hefty financial penalties.

We’re a lawn care company, so we got to wondering which Raleigh-Durham communities are the toughest on overgrown grass. To find out, we contacted the 16 biggest communities in the Research Triangle to inquire about their grass-height ordinances.

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Hundreds of Violations in Raleigh

Based on what we learned about the maximum grass height allowed in each community and the fines for exceeding the limit, we judged Raleigh as being the toughest lawn enforcer in the Research Triangle.

Here’s the ranking, from top to bottom, of the Toughest Lawn Enforcers in the Research Triangle. (See the table at the bottom of this story for details.)

  1. Raleigh
  2. Fuquay-Varina
  3. Cary
  4. Sanford
  5. Morrisville
  6. Durham
  7. Holly Springs
  8. Smithfield
  9. Wake Forest
  10. Garner
  11. Clayton
  12. Knightdale
  13. Mebane
  14. Apex
  15. Carrboro (Tie)
  16. Chapel Hill (Tie)

Of the 16 communities we surveyed, Raleigh and three suburbs -- Cary, Fuquay-Varina and Sanford -- impose the strictest grass-height limit: 8 inches. If you’re cited for violating Raleigh’s grass ordinance, you could face a stiff fine. Here’s the breakdown for Raleigh’s grass ordinance:

  • First violation -- No fine
  • Second violation within 12 months of the first violation -- $100 administrative fee and $250 civil penalty
  • Third violation within 12 months of the first violation -- $100 administrative fee and $500 civil penalty

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, Raleigh’s Code Enforcement Division handed out 720 violation notices for overgrown grass, city spokesman John Boyette Jr. says.

The City of Raleigh “feels that its health, sanitation and public nuisances code is extremely sufficient and effective,” Boyette says. “The city’s code enforcement inspectors not only respond to complaints from concerned citizens, but also perform observations within their assigned areas of the city to assure property owners are maintaining their properties to the standards of the code.”

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‘Friendly’ Reminders in Cary

Officials in neighboring Cary take a different approach to enforcing the town’s 8-inch grass limit. If Cary cites the owner for surpassing the limit, town-hired contractors then will mow the lawn at a minimum cost of $100. Cary’s code doesn’t include any fines for violating grass-height limit.

“By the time someone has complained and the owner fails to correct the problem, it is pretty bad, so the cleanup takes a while,” says Larry Dempsey, facilities division manager for the Town of Cary.

Cary uses both a formal and informal approach to fighting overgrown grass, Dempsey says.

Under the informal approach, if town officials receive a grass complaint, an employee will be dispatched to the offending home to speak to the owner, Dempsey says. If the owner agrees to take care of the grass, the town considers the matter resolved and takes no further action.

“We see this is as education or a friendly reminder,” Dempsey says.

The formal approach kicks in when town officials can’t reach the homeowner, even after dropping off a business card, he says. From July 2014 through June 2015, the Town of Cary issued 147 notices for violation of the tall-grass regulation. For July 2016 through June 2016, the number was around 90.

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Encouraging Compliance in Smithfield

Down in Smithfield, the town allows grass grow to 12 inches. But once grass goes beyond that height, Smithfield assesses $50 a day per violation. If the violator hasn’t cut the grass within 10 days of being notified, the town’s public works crew will mow the lawn and bill the owner for at least $220.

“Ultimately, we do not want to cut grass and try to encourage the owners to bring their property into compliance,” says Brent Reck, a spokesman for the Town of Smithfield.

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Fines or No Fines in Sanford?

Unlike Smithfield, the City of Sanford imposes no fines for residential grass that grows above the 8-inch limit.

According to the City of Sanford’s code, an owner is supposed to cut the grass within 10 days of getting a violation notice. Violating the code is supposed to trigger a $100-a-day fine. However, Sanford currently doesn’t impose any grass-height fines. Instead, the town mows the offending lawn and assesses the costs through a property lien, says Barbara McMillen, Sanford’s code enforcement supervisor.

Why did Sanford stop fining grass-height violators?

“We found the fines didn’t work so well because if property owners didn’t care about incurring more debt -- they are already in financial trouble -- then one more fine didn’t make any difference,” McMillen says. “Once in awhile, however, the prospect of incurring a large civil penalty will work.”

McMillen says Sanford is looking at imposing the $100-a-day fine again, at least for occupied homes where the grass is too tall. But for the time being, lawn outlaws in Sanford have a reprieve.

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Toughest Lawn Enforcers

What follows is our ranking of the Toughest Lawn Enforcers in the Research Triangle, with the communities listed in order of their toughness.

Click a city to see the corresponding fines and penalties.

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Image Sources:

  • http://www.turffiles.ncsu.edu/alerts/grasses/fall-seeding-of-cool-season-grass-lawns---a-water-conservation-effort
  • http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/10/prweb11263831.htm
  • http://www.movoto.com/guide/raleigh-nc/homes-for-sale-in-cary-nc-raleigh-suburbs-real-estate-trends/
  • http://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/114-Lake-Ridge-Dr_Smithfield_NC_27577_M62979-76055
  • http://www.savvyhomes.com/community/west-landing