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August 28, 2019 News » Cover Story

Nature protectors to government: Get off my lawn 

Grass Governance

click to enlarge FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller

Laura Colin’s property just west of Monument features a “bee house” where pollinators can hibernate during the winter, a squirrel-proof birdhouse and hummingbird feeder, and plenty of native plants, such as chokecherries and scrub oak — some of which Colin planted as acorns.

Until recently, the 1-acre lot was filled with tall, native grasses, spotted with clusters of wildflowers, which Colin says provided a friendly habitat for insects, endangered pollinators and wildlife.

“I think if everybody didn’t mow their lawn to the bare ground, it would really help nature,” Colin says, explaining that close-trimmed grass can’t harbor bees and other bugs.

But Colin received a notice of violation in July instructing her that her grass was too long — a county ordinance requires lawns to be trimmed shorter than 9 inches — and that she’d have 14 days to either mow her grass, or contact code enforcement to request an extension.

Otherwise, under El Paso County code, she could be subject to civil court action or be forced to pay the county to mow.

Colin says she understands prohibiting noxious weeds and invasive species, which state law already does. But Colin and her husband, Keith Allen, are frustrated by what they say is a larger problem: widespread local regulations that limit grass height while ignoring their potential impacts on a rapidly warming climate.

click to enlarge Laura Colin received a notice of violation in July instructing her that her grass was too long — a county ordinance requires lawns to be trimmed shorter than 9 inches. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Laura Colin received a notice of violation in July instructing her that her grass was too long — a county ordinance requires lawns to be trimmed shorter than 9 inches.

El Paso County’s “weeds and brush”  ordinance regulating vegetation on unincorporated property was last revised in 2017, but has been on the books in some form for decades. Its stated purpose:

To “protect the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens and residents of El Paso County, Colorado, by eliminating and controlling, to the extent possible, the growth and proliferation of weeds and brush within the county, which if not eliminated or controlled, can result in negative visual impact, incompatibility with existing land uses, fire hazards, traffic hazards, the clogging of drainage ways, obstruction of public access ways, alleys, and sidewalks, and other detrimental health and safety impacts.”

To that end, the ordinance states, residential lots must keep vegetation below 9 inches in height. The ordinance covers “weeds and brush” — which means, according to county spokesperson Joel Quevillon, “any plant that ordinarily grows without cultivation” and “is not used for the purpose of landscaping or food production.”

The county received 641 “weeds and brush” complaints last year, and 245 so far this year, Quevillon says. (Those could include multiple neighbors reporting the same violation.)

Such complaints trigger a notice from code enforcement giving the property owner 14 days to correct the problem or work out an extension. If the problem is not corrected in time, the executive director of the county Planning and Community Development Department can issue an “executive determination” to the county attorney’s office, authorizing it to issue a civil court injunction ordering the property owner to trim their grass. 

Or, the director can request an “entry and seizure” warrant for county workers to remove or trim the overgrown weeds and brush, and then bill the property owner. (If they don’t pay, that could mean a lien on the property.)

There’s an appeal process in place, too — but we won’t get into the weeds of that yet.

Colin received a five-day extension and had her grass trimmed under 9 inches before Aug. 19. She spent extra time using a weed wacker in the areas with wildflowers, and in places where she’d planted native scrub oak, to avoid mowing them down.

But she’s saddened that fewer insects and pollinators will find habitat on her property, and she argues that her longer grass retained moisture better, keeping the ground cool.

click to enlarge A squirrel-proof birdhouse tucked among the branches. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • A squirrel-proof birdhouse tucked among the branches.

While news about air pollution caused by lawn mowers, millions of gallons of water needlessly used to keep lawns green, and pollinator habitat displaced by landscaping has caused policies to slowly change, ordinances regulating grass length show no signs of disappearing.

The code of the City and County of Denver makes no mention of length, specifically (but does say “overgrown” vegetation constitutes a violation). However, two other nearby counties do include height limits. Pueblo County’s code is slightly more lenient than ours — it permits growth under 10 inches. In Arapahoe County, grass must be shorter than 6 inches tall. And Colorado Springs has its own city ordinance limiting grass to 9 inches.

Such ordinances are common in counties and municipalities across the country.

Ironically, outside residential areas, the state has worked to create habitats for pollinators by limiting maintenance. A resolution passed by the Colorado Legislature in 2018 designates Interstate 76, from Denver to the Nebraska state line, the “Colorado Pollinator Highway.”

Following the passage of that resolution, Colorado Department of Transportation crews stopped mowing certain grassy areas along the highway between April and September, the main pollinator months. 

This year, state legislators also strengthened an existing law that prohibits homeowners associations from banning xeriscaping, a type of landscaping that uses drought-resistant plants and therefore conserves water.

Colin says she rarely waters her grass unless the weather is particularly dry. But for many enamored with the traditional American lawn, non-native varieties such as Kentucky bluegrass are still popular.

A 2012 study by researchers from the NASA Ames Research Center, NOAA/National Geophysical Data Center, and several universities estimated such “turf grasses” represent the single largest irrigated “crop” in the United States. To irrigate all of the turf grass in the entire U.S., the study found, would require 900 cubic liters of water per person, per day.

Then there’s the emissions problem. A report presented at the 2015 International Emissions Inventory Conference in San Diego found that gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment emitted approximately 5.7 million tons of carbon monoxide, 460,000 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), 69,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 20 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2011 alone.

VOCs and nitrogen oxide combine with sunlight to form ozone, which can harm air quality and pose health risks. (That’s why, when the state Department of Public Health and Environment calls an “Ozone Action Day,” it’s recommended that you don’t mow your lawn in the middle of the day.)

Colin firmly believes that ordinances regulating grass length should be updated to reflect the environmental concerns of the time.

“They really need to be brought up to date and they need to be rewritten, to the point where, we’re making these laws that are — yes, so that neighbors get along — but on the other hand, we have to realize that we are sharing this planet, this environment, with other species,” Colin says.

click to enlarge A compost pile in the backyard contains trimmings. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • A compost pile in the backyard contains trimmings.

Colin’s property falls in El Paso County District 3, where Stan VanderWerf is the elected commissioner.

When asked for his opinion on the matter, VanderWerf points out the importance of the appeal hearing process.

If Colin had refused to cut her grass, and the executive director of the planning department had issued a determination (either referring the matter to the county attorney’s office for a civil injunction, or requesting a warrant to have code enforcement mow Colin’s lawn), Colin could have then submitted an appeal.

At that time, she could have presented her argument to the Board of County Commissioners at a land-use hearing. The commissioners could decide to uphold the executive director’s determination, or they could overturn it. 

An appeal hearing is “not something that any resident should be afraid of doing,” VanderWerf says, “if they feel strongly about their point of view.”

Mindy Madden, county code enforcement supervisor, says the ordinance is about more than aesthetic value — some residents who submit complaints are worried about tall grass posing a fire danger, for example, or that it can harbor rodents and snakes.

Should Colin decide to take up beekeeping, she might be able to work out an exemption for allowing taller grass on some areas of her lawn near the beehives, given that the ordinance doesn’t cover vegetation that serves an agricultural purpose, Madden says.

But Colin says she doesn’t want to become a beekeeper. 

“I’m not trying to produce honey,” she says. “I just want to create a habitat for wildlife, because I — we — have to share this planet with all these other species.”

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