Law would give town more power over tall grass

By Alex Bridges

A change in state law should help Front Royal go after property owners who let grass grow too tall.

The Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday approved a bill that adds Front Royal to the list of localities permitted to require the cutting of grass and weeds on occupied property.

Town officials explained Thursday the legislation gives Front Royal the backing of the state code when faced with challenges to the local ordinance.

Front Royal Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Camp said the legislation would not change the way the town handles complaints and violations of the local regulations. Currently the town can seek to declare tall grass on property a nuisance. But as Camp explained, that route can become costly for the town.

Camp called the legislation more of a housekeeping matter for the town department that monitors compliance with the local zoning ordinances, such as the one that requires owners of occupied property to keep lawns cut.

“There are complaints,” Napier said. “People do let their properties, from time to time, grow up in weeds and grass and the neighbors complain about it. It’s an eyesore.”

As Camp and Napier pointed out, tall grass and weeds attract snakes and vermin. Tall grass and weeds also can affect the value and possible sale of a neighboring property, Napier said.

The attorney noted that tall grass remains a problem more for properties in town limits than outside in the county.

“When you’re living in a more closed residential area, or commercial for that matter, you expect properties to be developed,” Napier said.

Assistant Town Attorney George M. Sonnett Jr. currently handles any legal action involving violations of the local ordinance, Napier said.

The impetus for seeking state authority also comes out of a fear that a property owner may present a legal challenge to a town citation for letting grass grow out of control, Napier explained. As a Dillon Rule state, the power of local governments remains limited to what the state says they can do, Napier noted.

“Rather than chance it, to have somebody specifically challenge us and say ‘the Town of Front Royal, you don’t have the specific authority to make me cut my grass,’ we decided to make sure, up front, there’s no question about it,” Napier said. “Then we feel like we can be a little more proactive in cleaning up town.”

The House voted 83-13 to pass the legislation. Delegates Michael Webert and David LaRock, whose districts include Front Royal, voted for the measure. Del. C. Todd Gilbert did not vote. The legislation is now being considered in the Senate.

The rule on the state books requires property owners to remove trash and other substances that may endanger the health or safety of other residents. State code requires owners of vacant property, developed or undeveloped, must cut the grass, weeds and other “foreign growth” from their property.

The state code includes a growing list of counties, cities and towns currently allowed to adopt an ordinance that allows them to apply the requirements to owners of occupied property. The list does not include Warren County. Winchester is the only jurisdiction in the valley included in the list.

Statute also allows jurisdictions to impose civil penalties for violating the ordinance.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com