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Nanny State of the Week: Vague nuisance laws let officials mandate mowing

By Eric Boehm |

Citing vague and ill-defined nuisance laws, officials in St. Alban’s Township, Ohio, are trying to make two residents to mow their lawn and destroy two years’ worth of work on a small-scale nature preserve.

Sarah Baker and Daryl Watson, according to local news reports, were told by township officials in mid-June they had one month to mow their yard or the township would do it and stick them with the bill. They say that action is a violation of their property rights and their Christian values, but local officials are unmoved.

Shutterstock image

Shutterstock image

A REAL NUISANCE: government officials, when considering how to best apply the term “nuisance” in order to improve their town, should probably take a long look in the mirror before taking a look at anyone’s yard.

Concerns about the environment drove Baker’s decision to leave the lawn unmowed. In a letter to township officials, she reportedly spelled out all the ways in which mowing your lawn is a terrible idea: the emissions from the gas-powered lawn mower, the lack of shelter and habitat for wildlife and the destruction of plants.

It was terrible, like a massacre. I ran over a snake and killed it. I killed a toad. I cut down all of these beautiful native plants and wildflowers. It was so upsetting,” she told the Columbus Dispatch, describing a previous run-in with local officials in 2013 when she was told to mow her lawn (she hasn’t mowed it since then).

OK, describing the mowing of a lawn with the word “massacre” is hyperbolic. But it is her lawn, growing on land she rightfully owns, and Baker says she has worked hard to keep out weeds and other invasive species. She believes she is following her Christian faith by turning her land into a sanctuary for animals.

Property rights and religious values aside, the state law township officials are using to bully the couple is more than a little vague.

As the Dispatch explained last week, Ohio law allows local officials to “abate and control” anything they determine to be a nuisance.

But what is a nuisance? Well, the law doesn’t define it, so it can be pretty much anything that upsets anyone else.

“Yes it’s a judgment call, and it’s my judgment,” Tom Frederick, the town zoning officer, told the Dispatch. “My recommendation to the trustees, to show that we feel strongly about this, is to declare it a nuisance property.”

Nuisance laws exist almost everywhere and they’re usually poorly defined and non-specific, giving governments carte blanche to regulate private property. If a homeowner or business is breaking the law, by all means they should be held accountable, but the ambiguity of nuisance laws makes them powerful tools in the hands of ambitious government nannies.

“There is perhaps no more impenetrable jungle in the entire law than that which surrounds the word ‘nuisance.’ It has meant all things to all people, and has been applied indiscriminately to everything from an alarming advertisement to a cockroach baked in a pie,” law professor William Prosser famously pointed out. “There is general agreement that it is incapable of any exact or comprehensive definition.”

For now, Baker and Watson are trying to find a compromise with Frederick and the rest of the local officials who, apparently, have nothing more important to worry about.

According to Newark Advocate, the couple spent several hours last week trimming the lawn down to about 8 inches high in the hope it would no longer be considered a nuisance.

But government officials, when considering how to best apply the term “nuisance” to improve their town, should probably take a long look in the mirror before taking a look at anyone’s yard.


Part 49 of 49 in the series Nanny State of the Week