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Code enforcers advise keeping lawns in check

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

As springtime brings the buzz of lawn mowers, property owners who let their yards grow wild by summertime could be given steep fines and could be doing their lawns more harm than good.

Many Pittsburgh-area municipalities have regulations that limit how tall grass can grass get, citing the fact that unkempt lawns can attract rodents and snakes while repelling respectable neighbors. Code-enforcement officers are starting to watch for such violations, but standards vary widely by community as to what constitutes a violation.

“We deal with a couple dozen of these cases per year, and we're not in the business of cutting grass and maintaining yards,” said Irwin Public Works Director Jim Halfhill. “That kind of blight and neglect can bring property values down ... It really takes away the entire curb appeal from the entire area.”

The limits on a lawn's length vary widely by community: North Huntingdon officials wait until grass grows a foot tall before taking action; Penn Hills and Franklin Park set their limits at 10 inches; North Irwin's and Hampton's cutoff is 8 inches; and other communities including Robinson, Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair want homeowners to keep their lawns to 6 inches or less.

“Six inches, when you compare it to other, mowed lawns in a neighborhood, is a pretty big difference,” said Robinson Manager Jeffrey Silka. “Six inches is more than enough.”

Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole said overgrown weeds and grass ”may create environments that are more conducive to rodents, vermin and other potential vectors for disease.”

The health department also responds to complaints of grass more than 10 inches high and can issue citations through its Housing and Community Environment Division if the property is infested with vermin, Cole said.

Municipal code enforcement officers or inspectors who find a property in violation will mail a citation to the property owner or post a notice on the property, along with the order that the yard be mowed or cleaned up as soon as possible. Owners usually get seven to 30 days to comply, depending on the community, before they face fines.

“In most cases, a property owner will get busy and cut their lawn when they're notified,” said Andrew Blenko, North Huntingdon's planner and engineer.

Letting the lawn grow after getting notice can result in steep fines — Hampton charges up to $1,000 if a cited property goes another five days unmowed — which can go to the district magistrate's office as a lien on the property if not paid or brought into compliance.

“We give residents three to seven days after we send a notice, and most of it gets done,” said Adele Nehas, North Irwin borough manager. “I've been here for five years and only remember one time the borough took someone to court (for not complying).”

If municipal officials step in to clear the property themselves, either with public works crews or by hiring a lawn-mowing service, the homeowner is liable for those costs, too, plus administrative costs.

According to North Huntingdon's ordinances, officials charge $25 per hour for labor and $75 per hour if a tractor is needed. The cost of mowing becomes a lien against the property, along with $91.50 in solicitor's and filing fees, Blenko said.

“In addition to the man-hours consumed in cutting the grass, there is significant clerical and legal time involved,” he said.

Peter Landschoot, a professor of turfgrass science for Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, said letting grass grow too tall also increases the risk of brush fires if there is a long, dry spell, and suddenly cutting back extra-tall grass tends to leave nothing but the plants' stems, which dry out and turn brown until the leafy blades can grow back.

“You don't want to go from, say, 8 inches to 2 inches, because all the leaves get cut off and it leaves only stems,” he said. “You're shocking the plant. You just removed all its leaf tissue, so how's it going to create energy through photosynthesis?”

Landschoot said a recent trend has some parks, golf courses and large, landscaped properties actually allowing sections of grass to grow tall and meadow-like to serve as additional fairway obstacles, visual or physical barriers to break up large pieces of property, or ground cover that requires less mowing than regular lawns.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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