Smile Politely

One Man’s Pile of Leaves is Another Man’s Pile of …

I’m just going to come right out and admit it.  I am a fan of nuisance law.

Since studying Property under Chancellor John Cribbet, who was present at the signing of Magna Carta, I have been enamored of the way the polis organizes the rules which allow people to live among one another. It’s kindergarten stuff, for the most part. (I live among a kindergarten teacher, so by “kindergarten stuff” I mean “extremely important” as well as “elemental.”)

I mentioned E. Wayne Johnson in an earlier column. I met with Wayne when he replied to my public beckoning. (For Nero Wolfe enthusiasts like me, it’s great to know that published calls for information exist, and work, outside detective fiction.)Wayne cautioned me, before my arrival, that his home was a bit messy. Indeed, when I arrived, I found it ravaged by Hurricane FourKids.

Wayne told me about the piles of tree trimmings he’d planned to use for mulch around a new fence. The City of Urbana hauled them away. I emailed Urbana’s compliance officer Jason Arrasmith for details. You don’t have to read his entire response, but I thought I’d present the whole thing.

On October 7, 2008 I received a complaint about the condition of the property at 1810 S Vine St.  The citizen complained about several vegetation and condition issues on the premise.  On October 7th I inspected the property and found there was 3 different ordinance violations on the property.  The grass and weeds on the premise was over 8 inches, there was vegetation on the south side of the property that was blocking the sidewalk, and there was two very large brush piles on the premise.  On October 8th I sent 3 different notice of violations to Mr. Johnson.

Section 11-62 (G) Vegetation Nuisances. The occurrence of vegetation in excess of eight (8) inches in height, on premise except for trees, shrubs, vines and vegetation allowed under the managed landscape plan permit.


Sec. 11-62 (I).  Nuisances, specifically defined. Vegetation, tree or shrub debris, or accumulations thereof, which by reason of the manner, location, or condition of such results in visual blight or constitutes a health or safety concern.


Sec. 11-62 (F).  Nuisances, specifically defined. Vegetation, shrubs or trees, except city owned and maintained trees, which prevents the free an unobstructed travel of pedestrians within a sidewalk corridor, such corridor is defined as being the full horizontal width of a paved sidewalk and seven (7) feet in vertical height above the sidewalk, or which otherwise negatively affect traffic or pedestrian safety by impairing the visibility of pedestrians or vehicle operators ingressing or egressing from driveways.


All three notices stated that the nuisances had to be abated before October 16, 2008.  When I returned on October 16th to inspect two of the 3 notices had been complied with.  The grass had been cut and the sidewalk was clear.  I decided since Mr. Johnson had complied with two of the notices I would allow an extra weekend for him to remove the brush piled on his premise.  When I returned on October 20th the brush piles were still on the premise and there was no indication that he had been working to remove them.  I then proceeded to contact our contractor to have the brush piles removed as provided by city ordinances.  After some heated conversations with Mr. Johnson, myself and with the Urbana Police Department the contractor and I proceeded to remove the brush.  


Mr. Johnson was also granted a hearing through our legal department to discuss his case.  It was found that the city did act within city ordinances and Mr. Johnson was still responsible for paying the contractors fees for removal of the brush.


While the City of Urbana does try to respect the rights and privacy of a property owner, we must also have and enforce ordinances for the health, safety and quality of life for all of its citizens.  Most violations that I enforce come from citizens that are concerned with the conditions that affect the quality of their life.       


And here is Wayne, verbatim:

“We have a lot of trees and we get a lot of brush each year. We are accustomed to accumulating brush and mulching it in batches. We have had brush piles which we have mulched on several occasions. I have rented a shredder from Rental City on a couple of occasions, and borrowed one from a neighbor on Burkwood twice. Rented once already this year from the True Value on Colorado. Also I have hauled to the Landscape center on University a couple of times, and to a friend in Mahomet who has bonfires a couple of times. We always take care of our brush and we know how to do it. This was not the largest brush pile we have had by any means. We have taken out more than 40 trees since we moved here five years ago. I view the taking of the material by Mr. Arrasmith to be trespassing and theft of our personal property and I am still offended beyond measure. I have been watching a fallen maple branch in front of Colorado Trace that is on the city right-of-way, it has been there almost a month now.”

Wayne felt Jason did his job with an unsuppressed glee. But whatever was going through his mind, Jason was doing his job.

So Wayne’s problem is not one of procedural due process (the right to a hearing, judged by an impartial authority). Wayne’s problem may be substantive due process (shitty, stupid law). Perhaps you agree with the City of Urbana, that this is intolerable squalor.

DSC04425.jpg picture by legalrecords

Wayne says nobody minded the piles. Jason says someone complained. That’s the key distinction between their accounts. I would wager they are both telling the truth.

In my three year quest to get Urbana to enforce non-vegetation nuisance law, I’ve discovered that neighbors do not like to confront neighbors. On the internet, people confront each other a lot. It’s especially easy to speak one’s mind anonymously, and untraceably. The more identifiable we become to our critics, opponents and naysayers, the less likely we are to be frank. 

I’m reminded of “A Waldorf Salad,” the episode of Fawlty Towers in which all the proper British hotel guests bite their tongues, despite a bevy of opportunities to complain.

It’s when the aggravation penetrates the home that the sufferer is least likely to complain. When the offender knows where we live, we shut up entirely.

Wayne Johnson is a gentle giant, but it’s hard to judge the gentle part from afar. The giant aspect is clear. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone wanted him to clean up his yard, but felt intimidated to ask him in person. Or maybe the anonymous caller knows Wayne very well, and didn’t want to lose his friendship by asking him to tidy up.

I take two lessons from Johnson v. Arrasmith. It’s important that we enforce nuisance ordinances, and it’s important that the nuisance ordinances are worth enforcing. Was Wayne’s pile so awful? I can’t answer that. But then, I’m not a reliable source regarding OCD cleanliness. I live with a free-range hamster, and he occasionally nibbles things from between my teeth.

I do know that the Mahomet Aquifer has less water than anyone dreamed. So it would be nice if some of us could employ ground cover, prairie grasses, or other lawn alternatives. Bluegrass is thirsty.

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