Where Have All The Cowgirls Gone?
JAILED! It was for letting her hedge grow taller than 6 feet!
(See the foundation plantings reach the roof at the corners of the house.. and, the grass must be long because the leaves aren´t mulched til the spring.)
I´ll bet you thought environmentalists were over the worst.
Her natural landscaping had irritated her neighbors with their tidy, scalped earth sensitivities. Or was it that she homeschooled her children and was critical of the education system, another discredited sacred cow?
Or maybe she just didn´t attend the right churches.
Yes, jailed for 60 days without bail. And fined $500, to boot. She had been fighting this battle for over two years, trying to keep her filbert trees and bird sanctuary clear of those who were harassing her and her children. Insisting that cutting grass in heat wave and drought made no sense, delayed but didnot deter the local lawn police.
She had planted a drought-resistant zoysia grass that ´laid over´ to escape the city´s height ordinance for grass. Her quiet, non-polluting mower mulched its clippings and she used it only occasionally to provide her soil with green fertilizer. She read the latest research and her half-acre yard was filled with almost forty trees and a small orchard. Sheltered with shade in the summer and wind diversion in the winter, her house had substantially reduced energy usage. She composted her kitchen scraps, her leaves and fallen branches, though without fancy contraptions.
Meanwhile, the county nearly lost its federal highway funding for having excessive air pollution. People were instructed to cut their grass in the cleaner evening hours, effectively polluting the entire daylight hours. The city spent large sums on a storm water retention basin to protect her neighbors which could have been avoided or cut had they simply let the grass grow long and replanted the hillside with trees. Among the storm water experts meeting in the area, the data dramatically illustrated this effect.
(On a 25% slope, such as the one to the south of the storm-water plagued subdivision,
water sheds down a forested slope at 13 ft per minute, compared to 210 ft per minute down short grass slopes and 600 ft per minute down paved areas,
giving storm drains a chance to carry away the problem.)
The local electric company was issuing ´peak alerts´, summer and winter, for users to cut their consumption before a higher rate would go into effect. The water utility established limits on lawn watering and the local paper ignored her letters to the editor.
The trouble started in ´95 when her mower developed problems and none of the local services had the specs to fix it, for an extended time. She was also in the midst of changing careers and wanted to join an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Knowing that she was anxious to leave, the neighbor across the road tried to rip her off with an absurdly low bid for her house, which she immediately turned down. He
intimated that he didn´t approve of her landscaping but that ´he wasn´t the type of neighbor who would call the city, as some others would´.
When she received a summons, she asked the judge to dismiss the case and nullify the law. Not knowing his history or ignoring it, the judge denied such powers existed. The courts that turned down attempts to enforce fugitive slave laws, the publishers who relied on Peter Zenger´s precedent, all would have rolled over in their graves to hear that this critical power of our juries is on the endangered list. So she pled
´no contest´ and paid $150 in fines.
The following year while she was working for the eco-village, the city continued their harassment. Her son trimmed the bird sanctuary to make it look more like a gazebo and it passed inspection. They, however, insisted he get rid of her longterm compost pile of tree branches which was quite an ordeal since he had no help and was under time pressure. By the end of the next year, after hurricane Fran took out their road and their organic orchard, the little eco-village group sold the land to pay off their debts and disbanded. On returning home she again assumed responsibility for dealing with the city.
This time the city complained about grass and hedges. After the lawn police admitted that parts of the ´hedge´ in the citation were actually trees, she was stunned when the police delivered the summons late in December because she felt the remaining bushes were reasonably close to their approved limit. She consulted a couple environmental landscape architects and dozens of experts from the state, from the county, from adjacent municipalities. She contacted the local chapter of the Sierra club, her councilman, her county commissioner. She called several lawyers, civil rights and environmentalism specialists.
No one knew of any individual with relevant experience. Some commercial and government properties had made the transition relatively uneventfully. Supporters said she should simply stand her ground. Her councilman said he grasped the research but suggested she should move to a townhouse so someone else would do the grass cutting, that living in the city took more attention to home ownership! He preferred the scalped earth appearance, and felt morally superior for the self-flagellation of grasscutting. Basically calling her a derelict, not fit for home ownership in the hi-brow city.
She asked the city for a variance. They said she was not eligible since the hedge was already in place. I suppose if she´d dug it up, applied and then replanted it, that would have made sense to them. She approached city council and made a plea during open session for their attention to the city´s outdated ordinances. She provided examples of other cities´ solutions and listed the benefits of natural landscaping, including the experience in Orlando where homes with natural landscaping sold for higher prices than similar homes in similar locations with traditional lawns.
Each of the lawyers she spoke to bowed out. The civil types because they were busy. The environmentalist variety considered it too minor. They dealt with county highways and constitutional issues. They said their fees would exceed any fines she might incur. So she took pictures of her grass with the yardstick to demonstrate that its height was under eight inches; pictures of her hedge to show it was approximately six feet, except for the filbert trees which reached about eight. She plotted her landscape, gathered catalogs to demonstrate that the filberts were multi-trunk trees and subpoenaed the local landscape architect who had offered his support.
In court she found out that the neighbor who had tried to cheat her was one of the complainants. The prosecution called the chief of police to testify that she was defiant, offering a copy of her presentation to city council as evidence. The same copy she had supplied the councilman in charge of building and zoning, at his request, saying he was supportive but the mindset of the town was the problem. It was no university town, he said.
After more than an hour of struggling with courtroom procedure, she managed to establish that the city had been mis-measuring the grass, that they didn´t know the difference between height and length. So the judge threw that charge out but he held it against her that she had been resisting for over two years. And the architect, instead of supporting the concept of different heights for trees, hedges and foundation plantings, played his own game of offering his services to make the landscaping of this defiant woman more artful. A conniving attempt to drum up business or an overconfident maneuver?
The judge had the bailiff drag her off to jail, threatening to put her children in social services. No bail, no stay of sentence. No concern for rights, diversity, the best information. Fortunately her son had the presence of mind to take over. He called in the troops, promised the high-priced environmental lawyer that he would take charge of the hedges. The lawyer felt somewhat responsible and cut him a deal on his rates. And the next day she was free, with the requirement to cut everything in sight and her first-born at risk til the job was done.
Over that intervening period, she found out that the city had known about the unsavory possibility that the neighbor might be harassing her for personal gain. She also learned that the lawn police were apparently ignoring other homes in the area that had hedges and foundation plantings that easily exceeded hers in height, including the hedge behind her despicable neighbor's patio. Her lawyer, though identifying this as ´selective enforcement´, insisted that the issue at hand was keeping her out of jail, that pursuing it would likely be lengthy and possibly jeopardize the safety he was concerned about.
But the judge, at the last hearing, had been threatening anyway, leaving her extremely vulnerable to further harassment. In the meantime, she´s documenting the state of her yard since it´s been declared to be in compliance. She´s also documenting the selective enforcement and looking for legal protection. Certification as an urban wildlife habitat would be nice. Her rabbits romped instead of cowered. Her American toads, by the chorus, sang hypnotically every night from spring til late in the fall. But certification has no force of law. Another indication of defiance.
So what´s the moral? What´s the end result?
First, it´s possible to do away with your lawn mowing. We won that one. With certain strains of grass that grow horizontally, you can use the official definition of height to thumb your nose at the city ordinances, enjoy your freetime and your lush lawn underfoot. One type especially recommended is creeping red fescue.
Second, there´s a need for a team of young legal talent, environmental Nader´s Raiders, to deal with recalcitrant lawn police. The ordeal of facing the municipal court on your own is unnerving to say the least, the very least. Even with the ironclad argument, the evidence and precedents. Homeschoolers have the Homeschool Legal Defense Fund. Environmentalists need a comparable arm. All the educational functions in the environmentalists´ arsenal won´t clear the path. All the education-induced sympathizers-in-the-street will never launch without a safety net that educational groups cannot supply. They´re not as crazy as our cowgirl.
Third, although it might seem insignificant, the grass-offensive is pivotal. That group of people with so little life that they can´t find anything better than to pick their navels and mind other people´s landscaping consistently react to unmowed grass. Never mind the rest of the yard. If we can pry their grubby hands off the grass issue, the floodgates will be open. Rainbow cowboys with backyard prairies, rainbow woodsmen with thickets of their own. There will be room for all of us, our flora and our fauna too. That unkept look of nature.
Fourth, and best of all, is to think about the benefits of converting 30 million acres of scalped earth, artificially sustained lawn to lush, life-friendly land in one quick fell swoop! A magnificent, nearly overnight environmental windfall.
Where are the rainbow cowboys. We´re looking for you.
--- [Well, that was 1998, and 2 years have past -- not uneventfully -- and the progress we'd made has brought another "opportunity"... ]---
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Resources & References__________
Fully Informed Jury Association seeks to preserve
the right of Americans to the real power of the jury system.
The case of Georgia vs. Brailsford in 1794 is a classic case. The opinion of John Jay, our first Chief Justice, included the following quote: "the jury...have nevertheless the right to take upon yourselves to judge of both...the law as well as the facts in controversy."
This right is one of the best ways of nullifying bad laws. It was used to protect the right of free speech in the colonies. The most famous case was in defense of a publisher, Peter Zenger, who reported on the corruption of the colonial governor of New York and was jailed, for his honesty, under the seditious libel laws. The jury acquitted Zenger and the case was the basis of our Constitution´s treatment of free speech.
This right was also the basis under which northern courts in the 1850´s refused to convict defendants brought to trial under the pernicious fugitive slave acts. It was the custom then to specifically instruct the jury in their rights until the late 1800´s. When judges today are instructing jurors otherwise they are depriving US citizens of one of their most fundamental protections from the excesses of government.
_The Lawn: An American Obsession_ by Virginia Scott Jenkins,
"traces the origin of the lawn esthetic, the development of the lawncare industry,
its environmental impact as well as modern and historic alternatives to lawn mania...
showing the extent to which the American middle class has been in turn
seduced and bullied by such unlikely bedfellows as the Garden Clubs of
America, the US Golf Association, the lawn care industry and the Dept
of Agriculture to invest in an aesthetic that is attainable only at great
cost to themselves and to the environment."
National Wildlife Association offers the
Backyard Wildlife Habitat certification program, which we´ve
completed but there weren´t many toads or rabbits this year..
what a surprise? maybe once we find legal representation.