Vines on home: code violation or landscaping enhancement?
Visitor Question: A single-family home in my neighborhood has vines covering much of the exterior. The growth appears uncultivated and uncontrolled. In my opinion, the home appears unsightly and is not in accord with the surrounding neighborhood.
The international property maintenance code (302.4) states, "All premises and exterior property shall be free from weeds or plant growth in excess of ## inches." A web page, "Tall Grass and Weeds," on my city's website states, "Other vegetation such as vines, saplings or shrubs may be a violation if it exceeds the eight inch height regulation and is clearly uncultivated."
In the past year I have input a complaint to city Codes and ultimately presented the case to the city council. I am told that the matter is under consideration by city staff, that enforcement must correspond with legal considerations, and to be patient.
Aside from addressing this particular issue-- can you tell me how the generic issue of uncultivated shrubs and vines are managed elsewhere?
Editors Reply: Vegetation issues are problems in many communities. Cities seem to have become more cautious about writing up violations, since the rapid increase in trends such as growing native plants, xeriscaping, and generally replacing lawn with other types of plantings. So what was considered a clear code violation a generation ago often is considered urban chic now.
Specifically we have heard of a few communities that have tried to cite homeowners for unkempt vines growing on the home itself or on a wall. The typical legal problem for the city is that vegetation ordinances often prescribe a maximum height, as does the city website you quote. But when a vine is protruding away from a vertical plane, a judge may rule that this does not constitute height.
Many cities don't allow their code inspectors to go onto the private property now, so in those cases it is particularly difficult to make a charge about the "height" of a vine growing on the side of a residence that will hold up in court.
So we think that most cities that want to avoid legal battles would take a course of action similar to what your city is pursuing.
Some cities are perfectly willing to exercise their police power to send out citations in hopes of winning voluntary compliance with subjective community standards. However others, especially in areas where residents have the financial means to fight the city in court, have become quite skittish.
If the vines in question include ivy, there is potential for damage to wood, vinyl, and stucco walls, and to brick walls if any mortar is loose. It seems a shame that a good means of assuring that ivy is controlled has not emerged, but we are not aware of any reasonable municipal standard that has been enacted specifically to cover vines on walls.
Having said all this, we think that if the situation in your neighborhood really is beyond what most people in your community would consider a landscape amenity, the city should be willing to issue a citation for excessive plant growth. But in the end, a city has to weigh community benefit against the potential monetary cost if the city encounters a property owner who wants to contest the matter in municipal court and then in whatever appeals courts may be allowed in your state.