Sussex County is taking aim at overgrown lots in unincorporated areas. At its July 16 meeting, council voted 3-2 to amend regulations, enforcement and penalties aimed at property owners who allow weeds or grass to grow taller than 12 inches on their property.
Under the updated ordinance, the county constable has the authority to contact property owners and give them up to 10 days to trim overgrowth. If action is not taken, the county will do the work and bill the property owner and possibly place a lien against the property.
Eddy Parker, the county's director of assessment, told council that the ordinance is still complaint driven. “It's always been that way and it will continue to be,” he said. “We don't go out looking for this.”
Parker said the intent of the ordinance is to provide a way to deal with overgrowth in rural residential areas in an effort to curb fire, safety and rodent issues sometimes associated with out-of-control growth. He said overgrowth could also detract from neighboring homes property values.
Working farms are excluded from the regulations, Parker added. The ordinance also excludes ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees.
County attorney J. Everett Moore said the ordinance was updated because of a recent case in a Justice of the Peace Court when the judge ruled the county's ordinance had no enforcement or penalties. During a previous rewrite of the ordinance, the penalties and enforcement sections had been inadvertently omitted, Moore said.
Parker said 99 percent of all complaints are handled amicably with a phone call or personal contact. “They cut the grass, and everybody is happy,” he said.
Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, and council members George Cole, R-Ocean View, and Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, voted in favor of the amended ordinance. Council members Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, and Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, voted against it.
Deaver said half of the calls she receives from constituents deal with complaints about overgrown properties. She said not all communities outside town limits have active homeowners associations to deal with complaints like these.
Vincent said he had to get the county constable involved in two cases within the past few weeks in western Sussex County.
Wilson said he has never received a call, and Phillips said he hasn't received one in a long time.
“I've not got calls and would get more calls if I voted for this by sticking our nose in their business,” he said, adding that not all of the same restrictions that apply to towns should apply to rural areas.
Wilson and Phillips both questioned how the county would handle a complaint from someone about overgrowth on state-owned property, particularly along roadways.
“I can take you out and show you highways right now with shoulder-high Johnson grass growing, which is illegal,” he said.
Parker responded that he would not enforce the county's regulations on state property, but would contact the county attorney who said he could also contact the appropriate Delaware Department of Transportation office with a complaint.
Under the ordinance, once a complaint is received, and the county constable determines there is a violation, the landowner is contacted in writing. The landowner is given five days to remedy the situation or 10 days if the landowner contacts the county and requests more time.
If the weeds or grass are not cut within 10 days, the county has the option to hire a contractor to do the work. The property owner will be billed for the cost and also pay a $50 administrative fee.
If the bill is not paid within 15 days of receipt, interest and penalties are added and a lien could be placed on the property until the bill and fees are paid. The county also has the option to file civil action to recover its expenses.
The fine for noncompliance is $250 for the first conviction, up to $2,500 for a fourth conviction. In addition, the county will not issue building permits, licenses or review plans or applications for anyone who owes the county money.
See a copy of the ordinance at sussexcountyde.gov.