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City monitoring lawn complaints

August 4, 2009
By MICHAEL ANICH, The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN - Even though most city residential neighborhoods don't have a major problem with overgrown grass, city officials Monday night said they will monitor the situation.

"I don't know if there is any answer to it," Fire Chief Bruce Heberer said during a Common Council meeting at City Hall.

Heberer, the city's top code enforcement officer, said the Fire Department can usually only investigate blight or cases of overgrown grass as the complaints are filed by the public.

"If we don't get them, we can't respond," Heberer said.

He said there is a formal process by which the public can complain about properties, and his doors are open and phone responses are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Second Ward Councilman Chris Foss said he's getting "quite a few calls" about unkept properties and asked what the city can do if people aren't mowing. He said some properties have 2-foot-high grass.

"Truly, the hardest part we have is [finding] the last owner," Heberer said.

He said his office has to go through city records and sometimes contact Fulton County government to get the property owner's name or the mortgage company involved.

"There is countless hours spent hunting down mortgage companies," the fire chief said.

City Treasurer Michael Gifford agreed it is difficult keeping up with mortgage companies, some of which have "50 offices nationwide."

"This [lawnmowing] is a continual problem in our city," Mayor Sarah J. Slingerland said. "Really, this is not unique to Johnstown."

The mayor said when people complain, they can be assured the city is working on the problem.

"I wish I could make it go away tomorrow," said Heberer, who noted the situation is made worse by a rainy summer.

City Engineer Charles Kortz said the city code says the city can only intervene if grass becomes too long on properties' terraces -the right-of-way between the curb and the sidewalk.

"We can't just walk on to somebody's lawn and start mowing," said police Chief Greg Horning.

Heberer suggested a revision of city ordinances in which the Fire Department and the Department of Public Works can work more closely together. He said state codes allow 10 inches of grass.

The city also may want to increase man-hours to handle complaints, Slingerland said.

Foss asked if overgrown lawns constitute some kind of hazardous situation or even health problem with potential rodents and mice.

"Does that still give us the right to go in and mow it?" Heberer asked.

Slingerland said the city has sent letters to properties that need to be mowed, with some success and compliance.

Kortz said about two-thirds of those letters result in mowing, and about one-third result in the DPW mowing at least the terraces in a situation in which the property owner is billed.

Heberer suggested all properties be required to have a "local agent" available that authorities could keep in contact with.

"I think it's a very good idea," 4th Ward Councilwoman Kay Cole said.

Michael Anich can be reached at



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