City Fines Homeowner $30K for Uncut Grass, Now Want His House

P. Gardner Goldsmith | May 13, 2019
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Remember that outlandish idea called private property?

Evidently, the mighty mucky-mucks in the “Code Enforcement Board" of Dunedin, Florida, don’t.

According to Kirby Wilson, writing for the Tampa Bay Times, the attack by the city stems from a period in 2018 when 69 year-old resident Jim Ficken let his lawn grow higher than what the city politicians allow in their “code”.

So, on Tuesday, May 7, that Board moved to foreclose on Mr. Ficken’s home. And on the same day, Mr. Ficken fought back. He filed a lawsuit against the City and the members of the Board:

He’s seeking $1 in nominal damages, attorneys fees and injunctions that would relieve him of the fines. The suit also hopes to end Dunedin’s alleged practice of fining people ‘without considering a homeowner’s ability to pay.’

A dollar. Compared to $30,000.

A man, against the state.

And why is Ficken fighting? Clearly, it’s not to extract cash from the government, which, of course, really means other taxpayers under the Tax Man’s thumb. It’s for his home and to prevent others from suffering from future confrontations like this.

‘It’s an excessive fine, and everyone I’ve spoken to says it's outrageous,’ Ficken, a retiree on a fixed income, said.

It started in 2015, when Ficken would frequently travel to South Carolina to help his ailing mother. During one of his trips, the city cited him for grass that was “too high” (over ten inches). Any additional “code” breach in the next five years would see him become a “repeat offender” (GASP!).

Ficken’s mother passed away in 2016, and in 2018, when he headed north to take care of matters for her estate, he hired a mower to cut the grass.

Ficken left Dunedin for two weeks in July of 2018 to manage her estate. During that time, the man who mowed his lawn, Russ Kellum, died suddenly. When Ficken got back and tried to mow his overgrown lawn himself, his mower broke, the lawsuit said.

What better way to greet a man who just returned from handling his dead mom’s estate and whose hired lawn-mower just died than to send him a bill for tens of thousands of bucks?

That’s what Dunedin did.

Charging him $500 a day.

For uncut grass.

It was nearly two months before Ficken had any idea he owed the city tens of thousands of dollars, he said. On Aug. 20, a code enforcement official making his daily rounds told Ficken to expect ‘a big bill from the city,’ his lawsuit said. That day, Ficken bought a new mower. The next day, Aug. 21, he mowed his lawn. He also received notice from the city that he was to appear at a hearing with the Code Enforcement Board on Sept 4.

But Ficken already had important matters to handle.

He was due in South Carolina to manage another issue with his mother’s estate, he said. The board met without him on Sept. 4 and determined his fine would stand. The board also approved a separate fine, alleging that his grass had grown too long again starting Aug. 31. Ficken said he had no notice of this fine either. Between the two fines, Ficken owed Dunedin $29,833.50 — on a house with a $125,541 market value, according to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser.

It sure looks absurd. Such a high fine, for tall grass, levied against a man whose hired lawn mower died while he was away?

But to set one’s mind along these lines is to, pardon the pun, get lost in the weeds of normalcy bias.

The point is that this man owns the property, not the city. His act of growing grass over ten inches in height brings no direct harm to the lives or property of others, which was supposed to be the threshold under which the polis was to have power to punish, according to British Common Law and the Lockean Natural Rights basis of American jurisprudence. To haggle over how high the grass grew, or how many days he contravened a city mandate, is to accept the noxious notion that there really aren’t any such thinsg as private property or self-ownership. To accept the poisonous idea that the government can simply take property from people who haven’t harmed others is to admit the ideological sepsis of collectivism into one’s mind.

And it opens a Pandora’s Box to allow for many other kinds of “violations” that could allow the political class to invade the sanctity of private ownership.

Ethics and philosophy classes perennially look at situations like these, but they rarely open the discussion up to the economics of freedom, as well. And that portion of the debate teaches us important lessons.

There are many activities in which neighbors could engage that could bring their rights into conflict. The question is whether these stresses will be worked out freely, with the allowance of the interested parties to apply prices to what they consider important, or they will live under political controls that have little, if anything, to do with voluntary association and values.

So, for example, if two people live in a private community, they agree to the terms of that voluntary, market-oriented, group. That community competes with others, and those that manage potential disputes the best see the best success.

Governments not only don’t allow for real choice, they change the rules every few years or months, and the rule changes often are based on political incentives rather than market incentives. Special interests can create license requirements, zoning mandates, and new “codes” that line pockets and favor ideologies, not the sanctity of private property.

This lawsuit is important not only because it might rectify an apparent wrong. It’s important because it opens a window to a world that is larger than the admittedly absurd code enforcement fine and potential loss of a home.

It lets observers remind themselves that there are two opposing forces in the world of politics: the individual, and the polis.

The polis can only exist by taking from individuals, and always claims the power to take more property.

Mr. Ficken knows this.

Let’s hope more people learn the truth.

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