Weeds or Wildflowers? City Collects Millions in Fines for 'Uncut Weeds'

By Benjamin Woodard on August 6, 2014 4:30am 

 Raymond and Kathryn Ward are suing the city after they were fined for uncut weeds on their lawn on Morse Avenue.
Raymond and Kathryn Ward are suing the city after they were fined for uncut weeds on their lawn on Morse Avenue.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

ROGERS PARK — The ban on overgrown weeds is big business for the City of Chicago, which has collected more than $19.5 million in fines from property owners since 2009.

But some city gardeners are fighting back, saying inspectors are targeting their wildflowers — not weeds — because the city ordinance is too vague. One gardener argues the fines are a cash grab by the city.

And a Rogers Park couple are taking their case to court.

Raymond and Kathryn Ward, who live on Morse Avenue, sued the city earlier this summer, asking a judge to abolish the law.

The Wards, who were slapped with a $640 fine for "uncut weeds" in June, say the ordinance violates their constitutional rights, according to their suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

Ben Woodard details his efforts to uncover how much money the city makes from these fines:

The city's weed control ordinance disallows "weeds," which it defines as "vegetation that is not managed or maintained" and "exceeds 10 inches in height." The ordinance affects "any person who owns or controls property within the city."

Fines for violating the ordinance range from $600 to $1,200.

Vacant lots aren't the only fine targets, though.

The plants deemed weeds by the city were part of a "native plant prairie garden" the Wards said they intentionally planted 20 years ago by spreading 50,000 wildflower seeds on their lawn, according to their lawsuit.

Phone calls to the Wards' home and knocks on their front door went unanswered, but other property owners who don't maintain a typical front yard also have cried foul.

"I grow a lot of perennial plants, and a lot of them are native, while some of them are not," said Nance Klehm, 48, a Little Village resident who grows shrubs, milkweed and other flora in front of her home. "I grew an atypical garden, which is why I think I got slammed."

Despite arguing her case in front of a judge in 2013, she was fined $600.

 In 2013, the city assessed $9.3 million in fines, collecting $6.03 million.
In 2013, the city assessed $9.3 million in fines, collecting $6.03 million.
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DNAinfo/Benjamin Woodard

"I left the courtroom shaking mad," she said. "I thought it was a cash grab."

The Wards and Klehm were among 60,000 property owners ordered to pay the city more than $38.1 million since 2009, according to data obtained from the Department of Administrative Hearings through a Freedom of Information Act request.

But only some of them paid. According to data from the city's Finance Department, the city has collected $19.6 million of what has been owed since 2009.

In 2010, when the minimum fine was hiked from $100 to $600, the city filed 10,605 cases against property owners for unkempt lawns, more than twice as many as in 2009. The city also assessed $6.6 million in fines in 2010 — three times as many as in 2009.

Last year, the city assessed $9.3 million in fines, collecting $6.03 million. City officials said that some of the money collected each year comes from fines assessed in previous years.

Molly Poppe, a spokeswoman with the Streets and Sanitation Department, which issues citations for violations of the city's weeds ordinance, said inspectors follow the city code when issuing tickets.

She said the department "is diligent in monitoring all neighborhoods in Chicago for overgrown weeds" because weeds "impact the beauty of our communities and pose real health and safety concerns, including providing harborages for mosquitoes and rodents."

A mayoral spokesman also said: "Weeds are a blight on our communities, and it is important that these weeds be removed to help ensure that our neighborhoods are safe and clean."

Mo Cahill, who transformed her Rogers Park backyard and an empty lot she owns next door into an urban garden, said she's often hassled by city inspectors, whom she calls "a bunch of goons."

"I've come to call it the spring inquisition," she said.

Despite the frequent visits, which she says are a product of complaints from some neighbors, she's never been cited for the plants that grow on her property.

"I let the weeds grow for the pollinators," she said. "I’ve got great native pollinators there."

The Wards, on Morse Avenue, aren't the first to challenge the city's ordinance.

In 1992, a circuit judge upheld the law after it was challenged, according to an article published in the Sun-Times. A year before, four neighbors filed a lawsuit in federal court, according to another news article at the time.

John Holden, a spokesman for the city's Law Department, said the outcome won't be any different this time.

"We don’t believe the current lawsuit challenging the ordinance has any merit, and we will vigorously defend it," he said.

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) said his office had worked with the Wards to help them bring their garden up to code.

Yet the couple was cited anyway and eventually cut down most of their garden in fear of being fined again.

"It's not a clear-cut issue (pardon the pun)," said Moore in an email, "and the ordinance probably could use some clarification."

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