Thursday, January 31, 2013

Big Fire Caused by City’s Neglect

Speech to Grants Pass City Council, 9/15/2011

            Grants Pass had a big "brush fire" right off one of its main drags, 7th Street, last week, with flames up to 75 feet tall. It burned about 3 acres before being brought under control by means normally used on forest fires: a helicopter with a water bucket. We may never know what sparked the blaze, but it is obvious what caused the property to burn: non-enforcement of our nuisance code and poor enforcement of our safety hazard code. 
As the fire was being put out, one could see 3-4 foot tall dry weeds beyond the fences of threatened 7th Street businesses. The property behind them has been neglected and allowed to become a fire hazard.
Enforcing our nuisance code, which forbids allowing weeds to mature or go to seed, would prevent any fire hazard from developing. But that provision has been unenforced for at least two decades. Our safety code calls for abatement of properties that become a safety hazard. A decade ago, firemen made sure that weeds were at least cut before Memorial Day, but that job was given to Community Service Officers a few years ago, and they only respond to complaints. With zero enforcement against mature and seeding weeds, there are too few CSOs to keep up with the resulting safety hazards, even if they enforced against them on sight.
City management and police say that police are too highly trained and paid to enforce nuisance codes. But enforcing the laws, even city ordinances, is the job of police. They say that they have to prioritize to enforcing against real crime. Allowing one's property to become a nuisance or a safety hazard to one's neighbors is a real crime; that's why we wrote laws to prevent it. They say people should talk to their neighbors. The Courier ran a story on August 9th, "Authorities still ponder reasons for Ohio killings," that illustrated how dangerous asking one's neighbor to clean up his property can be; a man killed seven people, including his neighbors, when they asked him to clean his place up. Such dangerous work is a job for police. 
Grants Pass is the seat of Josephine County. This Board has an interest in preventing safety hazards within the city as well as without. We now have more fire prevention in our forests these days than we do in town. Thus we have a brush fire in town, right off the main drag. Please talk to the City about using police to enforce all of its nuisance code, and abating the hazards that have resulted from its non-enforcement.
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Enforcing Nuisance Code is Police Work

Speech to Grants Pass City Council, 9/7/2011

            I have stopped complaining to the police about private violations of our nuisance code.  It is a dangerous business that is not the job of any private citizen.
            A case in point comes to us from Copely, Ohio, reported by AP in the Daily Courier on August 9th, “Authorities still ponder reason for Ohio killings.”  A man killed seven people, starting with shooting his girlfriend and his elderly neighbors, before walking around the neighborhood shooting people until police shot him.  His girlfriend survived.  It appears that a dispute started when his neighbors asked him to clean up his yard.
            Our City Manager and police don’t believe that highly trained and highly paid police officers should be enforcing nuisance codes, but this kind of situation is exactly what police are trained and paid to do.  If police had told the man to clean up his yard, he may well have thought twice before going after them; at least he would be going after armed men.
            There is no easy way to tell a person to clean up his yard, but it is possible to do it safely if you know the person and are friends with him.  If not, you are risking your life.  After the neighbor asked this man to clean up his yard, his housemate probably agreed, which likely so enraged him that he went ballistic.
            This is an extreme case, but only a bit more extreme than the treatment I got from two neighbors after your CSO told them who complained about their yards.  When one goes to a property that is being neglected, one never knows who is on the other side of that door, or how offended he might be at a polite request to clean up his property.
Police are trained to handle such risky situations, and they should always make first contact with a nuisance code violator.  After they have assessed the situation and delivered a warning, then a Community Service Officer may safely follow up to see that the warning is heeded, and to cite the offender if it is not.
            Since our City Manager and police do not believe that enforcing our code is a job for police, they are not likely to change their minds unless this Council says otherwise.  Please tell City management to use police to do the risky business that they are paid for, and make those first contacts with nuisance code violators.  Since enforcement by complaint does not work, they will have to actually read the code and enforce against violations on sight.
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Spraying v. Mowing: Both Spread Weeds

Speech to the Josephine County Commissioners, 8/24/11

There was an article in the August 8th  Daily Courier, “Volunteers trim grass, weeds near Williams.”  People in Williams don’t want the County to use herbicide to keep their roadsides clean, and have an agreement with the County to control vegetation along 40 miles of roads in their area.  Public Works now says that the job is too big for them, and mowing reduces the life of pavement, as it leaves a mat of stems and grass roots that holds water and undermines the road.  So Public Works plans to ask this Board to reduce the amount of roadway that is maintained by volunteers by half, from 40 to 20 miles of roadway.
In this gardener’s opinion, nothing has contributed to the spread of weeds like spraying and mowing, along with its poor cousin, weed-whacking.  These tools have made people think that they can control weeds in this manner without bending over and pulling them out of the ground.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 
Grants Pass’ Wastewater Treatment Plant property is a case in point against mowing without watering to control weeds and grass: it is a mess of weeds, including star thistle and puncture vine, with little good grass.  A mature wild lettuce or thistle does not die when cut off at ankle height; it jumps right back with new flowers within a week.  Puncture vine is unaffected by mowing, crawling beneath the blades and spreading its seeds over pavements. 
Roundup® and other plain glyphosate products may be the safest herbicides known to man, but that doesn’t make the stuff great for weed control.  It’s a crude organic fertilizer that feeds the soil and favors windblown weeds and crabgrass over perennial grasses and trees.  Crabgrass loves it; it kills the plants, but the seeds pop right up, bigger and greener every time.  Under spray management, we are filling our roadsides with ugly weeds.
I was told a few years ago that Hawaii uses steam machines to kill roadside vegetation.  This does not fertilize the next crop of weeds, and it kills them all immediately, including the crowns and seeds.  We wouldn’t have to buy expensive chemicals, only cheap water and the fuel to heat it. 
I ask this Board to investigate these machines and their use, and buy one to maintain clean gravel on our roadsides instead of relying on either spraying or mowing.  Spraying is creating corridors for weeds to grow and spread throughout our county.  Mowing does the same.  Let’s try something that kills the vegetation, and doesn’t fertilize the next generation of weeds.

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We need a City Gardener

Speech to Grants Pass City Council, 8/3/2011

            For the last 6 years, I have been bringing complaints to this Council regarding our City’s landscape management: spreading fine bark that kills soil; the disease and weed hazards appearing in the River Road Reserve; the City’s neglect of weeds on its in-town properties and non-enforcement of its nuisance code.  All of these problems come down to a single deficiency in City government: we don’t have a professional gardener on staff.
            We need one person in charge of keeping all of our properties up to our code: one who can supervise our various landscaping contractors; walking all city properties monthly, noting problems and telling our contractors what needs to be done and the most efficient way to do it.  We need one person whom people can call about problems and concerns with City properties and advice on keeping their own properties up to code.  We need someone on staff to teach our police about our nuisance code and how best to enforce it, making it a priority for them instead of a triviality to be ignored.  We need a gardener sitting in staff meetings and pointing out the cost of landscape maintenance, and speaking to the Budget Committee and Council on behalf of loving our neighbors and obeying our nuisance code when setting budget priorities.
            This person needs to be a professional gardener with at least 10 years of managing many other people’s properties alone or with little help, learning the most efficient ways to kill and prevent weeds.  We need a gardener who, by herself, has reclaimed many properties from weeds, fine bark, and landscape cloth, fixing the mistakes of homeowners and landscapers and learning from her own mistakes over the years.  We need a gardener in City government with a fire in her belly to clean up our town and return it to the neatness it showed in the 80’s and before.
            Naturally, as the person who sees the need and has that fire in her belly, I believe that I am the gardener that the City needs to hire.  I can put my customers’ properties up against any other gardener or landscaper in town.  Over the next few meetings, I will be giving speeches to the Council on the need for this position, and e-mailing work plans to our City manager, Council, and staff to clean up weedy properties; efficiently maintain flowers and shrubbery; mulch with free leaves, wood chips, and coarse bark; and for our police to efficiently enforce our nuisance code, all of which will be published for the edification of others on
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Clean Streets make Clean Stormwater

Speech to Grants Pass City Council, 7/20/2011

            Not long ago, this Council passed new regulations regarding development codes aimed at keeping stormwater runoff into the Rogue River clean.  We now have bio-swales built into new construction projects to settle the sediments from pavements before the water runs off into the river.
            But those codes only affect new development.  Most of our city cannot be readily renovated to clean the water running down the storm drains.  But those streets and gutters can and should be cleaned by the people who live next to them.  This would keep our runoff clean now, not decades down the road.
            Our nuisance code forbids depositing grass clippings and other detritus on streets and sidewalks, but it does not require residents to clean up the leaves and such that naturally fall from trees.  In many places, the residents allow them to build up inches deep; they figure the streets are the city’s responsibility to clean.  They are given this impression by the cleaning trucks that regularly run the main streets and occasionally go down side streets, but many streets never see a street-sweeper.
            As those leaves rot in the gutter, they soak up pollutants from passing cars and other sources.  They eventually rot down to humus, which readily runs down the storm drains to the river with the runoff, along with their attached pollutants.
            Not only streets and sidewalks contribute to the pollution of our runoff; private pavements also run into the streets and eventually to the river.  Leaves on public and private pavements are a safety hazard as well, becoming slippery when wet. 
The place for dropped leaves is covering soil; on pavements they are a nuisance, and the City should designate them as such in its code.  It should encourage people to use those leaves to cover their bare soil, reducing erosion into our streets and river as well as stopping many weeds from sprouting.
Of course, the Council should first pass a resolution telling the City administration to enforce all of our nuisance code as a matter of course, not in response to complaints.  The administration seems to believe that City codes are mere suggestions by the City Council, not law that they are bound to enforce. 
Even in response to complaints, our officers only recognize the safety hazard code, not the weed and litter nuisance code.  Nothing has been done about the various properties complained about in an e-mail to the administration and the police several weeks ago, regarding vegetation hanging over curbs and into the street.

These are our presently unenforced nuisance codes, with the proposed amendment included in parentheses and italics:

Selected Grants Pass Nuisance ordinances:
5.12.050 Weed, Grass, Snow and Ice Removal.
1. No owner or person in charge of property, improved or unimproved, abutting on a public sidewalk or right of way adjacent to a public sidewalk may permit:
A. Snow to remain on the sidewalk for a period longer than the first two hours of daylight after the snow has fallen.
B. Ice to cover or remain on the sidewalk, after the first two hours of daylight after the ice has formed. Such person shall remove ice accumulating on the sidewalk or cover the ice with sand, ashes, or other suitable material to assure safe travel. (Ord. 2901 §9, 1960)
C. Weeds or grass from growing or remaining on the sidewalk for a period longer than two weeks or consisting of a length greater than 6 inches.
(D. Leaves, detritus, or litter from remaining on public or private pavements for a period of longer than 2 weeks, or long enough to begin to decompose or become slippery when wet.)

2. Property owners and persons in charge of property, improved or unimproved, abutting on right of way adjacent to a public sidewalk shall be responsible for the maintenance of said right of way, including but not limited to: keeping it free from weeds; watering and caring for any plants and trees planted herein; maintaining any groundcover placed by the City; maintaining any groundcover as required by  other sections of the Municipal Code or the Grants Pass Development Code. (Ord. 5380 § 18, 2006)

5.12.060 Weeds and Noxious Growth.
No owner or person in charge of property may permit weeds or other noxious vegetation to grow upon his property. It is the duty of an owner or person in charge of property to cut down or to destroy weeds or other noxious vegetation from becoming unsightly, or from becoming a fire hazard, or from maturing or going to seed. (Ord. 2901 §10, 1960)

5.12.070 Scattering Rubbish.
No person may throw, dump, or deposit upon public or private property, and no person may keep on private property, any injurious or offensive substance or any kind of rubbish, (including but not limited to garbage, trash, waste, refuse, and junk), appliances, motor vehicles or parts thereof, building materials, machinery, or any other substance which would mar the appearance, create a stench, or detract from the cleanliness or safety of such property, or would be likely to injure any animal, vehicle, or person traveling upon any public way. (Ord. 2901 §11, 1960; Ord. 4397 §1, 1981) (Ord. 5379 § 18, 2006)

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