Property owners may apply for exemptions, which county staff says will be judged on a case-by-case basis
Beginning Oct. 1, approximately 30,000 landowners in Sarasota County will become responsible for mowing the area between their property line and the adjacent roadway within the county’s Urban Service Area, thanks to Aug. 24 action of the Sarasota County Commission.
The county has been paying for that activity eight times a year along local roads next to single-family homes, a staff memo pointed out. The change in policy should save about $500,000 annually, the county’s chief engineer, Isaac Brownman, said during a presentation to the board.
The ordinance the board approved on a 4-1 vote after a public hearing does allow for special exceptions for owners of parcels with “significantly deep ditches with steep side slopes,” Brownman pointed out. Staff will consider the depth of the ditch and whether it stays full of water most of the year or whether its soil condition makes it “mucky,” he noted. “We would look at each property on a case-by-case basis.”
A staff memo provided to the board says that a property owner or occupant of a home will have to file a written petition with the county’s public works director (Brownman), explaining the individual’s circumstances, to seek an exemption. If Brownman denies a petition, the person may appeal the decision to County Administrator Tom Harmer, the memo notes.
Other exceptions will be made for any “median within an abutting roadway,” the memo continues, as well as rights of way adjacent to parcels that are “in a natural state of vegetation” and have not been mowed within the past five years.
If only one person complained about a problem in a neighborhood where no other homeowners had issues, Brownman told the board, staff probably would not grant an exemption.
“It is anticipated that an adjustment and outreach period of 8-12 months will be required to acquaint residents with the new ordinance,” the staff memo says. “During this period,” it adds, “staff will work diligently with residents to mitigate non-compliance prior to taking formal code enforcement action.”
Just before the vote, Commissioner Christine Robinson pointed out that she opposed the scheduling of the public hearing when the board voted for that on April 27. As she noted then, she continued, she believes “our savings will be eaten up in the bureaucracy that we are creating [in handling special exception requests]” and in Code Enforcement officers’ responses to complaints of residents.
She reminded her colleagues that she also had voiced concerns earlier this year about inefficiencies in the Code Enforcement Department. She fears the new mowing policy will lead to a request for the hiring of even more officers, she said. “Until we get these issues straightened out with Code Enforcement,” Robinson added, “I don’t believe we should be giving [the officers] further responsibilities.”
In making the motion, Commissioner Carolyn Mason pointed out that when she lived for a number of years within the city of Sarasota, she was responsible for the mowing of the right of way next to her home.
Brownman explained during his presentation that most governmental jurisdictions — including municipalities — require property owners to handle that work, as staff learned through its research.
Only one person appeared before the board during the Aug. 24 public hearing. Jutta M. La Pinta of Venice said, “I have a deep ditch on the corner.” When she contacted a company about installing a pipe in it and then closing it up, she added, the estimate she received was $13,200.
“Most of my neighbors are elderly” — in their 80s and 90s, she continued — and the person who was mowing her lawn recently quit. In trying to hire a new person to do the work, she said, she has found that when people visit her property to assess the situation, “they see that ditch [and] they just want to do the grass; they don’t want to do the ditch.”
La Pinta told the board, “I hope you will consider [my situation] and I hope we can all come to a good solution of the problem.”
“We have your information and will follow up,” Commissioner Charles Hines told her when he seconded Mason’s motion.
During his presentation, Brownman also noted that staff held three public meetings prior to the Aug. 24 hearing, and social media was used extensively to make residents aware of the proposed changes. A total of 35 people attended the meetings, he said, and their comments were mixed.
A Sarasota News Leader review of written responses provided in the County Commission’s agenda packet found one card that said, “People should be responsible for their whole yard even if part is county property.”
A man who lives in Nokomis wrote, “The ditch was just dug out. Now it is [too] steep for rider. I’m disabled and can not weed [whack] ditch.” He added that county staff should continue to contract with firms to handle the work.