Get The Government Off My Lawn

This op-ed was published in Salt Lake Tribune.

Alisa was shocked, when opening her mail last summer, to find a letter from Roy City, giving her notice to appear in court for a misdemeanor charge. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.) Alisa’s own local government was prosecuting her for allowing dandelions to grow on her property — an act that is prohibited by the municipal code.

Just four months earlier, code enforcement officers had notified Alisa to fix the problem, and she quickly paid to have the area cut and sprayed — but, as is common with tedious weeds, the dandelions eventually sprouted their way back, resisting the chemicals intended to kill them off permanently. And now, Alisa was facing a charge that could land her in jail — an extreme charge for such a minor violation, and one that is unfortunately not uncommon.

Alisa’s altercation with code enforcement presents two important questions. First, aside from the city, did anyone actually mind the dandelions? Second, did they present harm to the health and safety of nearby Roy residents? It appears not. But numerous municipal ordinances across the state have criminal penalties for violating these minor property offenses, putting people in similar situations to Alisa’s — and that needs to change. It’s not the government’s job to create and enforce arbitrary laws that restrict people’s ability to use their property as they see fit when the prohibited action isn’t actually harming anyone.

Stories like Alisa’s demonstrate the real world consequences of a law passed with ostensibly good intentions. Did her city council mean for her to face jail time and a criminal record because of a few patches of yellow weeds in her yard? Probably not. But that’s exactly what happened. Her government — alongside many others in Utah — dictates outward beautification standards for one’s home. Should they also dictate paint color for houses and fences, and the height of rose bushes and type of vegetables one can grow? No, standards like these should be left to the individual, or at best their neighborhood association.

Lawn violations aren’t the only government overreach Utahns face on their residential property. People in many cities are prohibited from renting their home out on short term basis to earn extra income for their family, even when it poses no threat of harm or nuisance to neighbors. Cities also restrict the amount and type of animals one may keep within their home. If people break these violations, they may face hefty fines, amounting to hundreds of dollars per day in some cities — and criminal charges as well.

It’s certainly plausible that an Airbnb rental could result in a party home filled with loud guests upsetting the peace. Or perhaps a person has eight dogs that they don’t clean up after, and let run wild through the neighborhood, barking as they please. But problems like these can be solved without heavily regulating or prohibiting the underlying activity for everyone else who would be doing it peacefully and properly. Cities should be restricted to enforcing actual nuisances including noise, odor, sanitation and health and safety problems. Farmington City does just this with their pet ordinances.

Farmington’s model animal code rests on the condition that “all animals must be kept and maintained in such a manner so as not to degrade (below a reasonable standard), the health, safety, noise, odor or sanitation environment of persons dwelling on neighboring lots.” Rather than place number restrictions on pets, they simply leave any problems to be handled with these appropriate and reasonable standards.

Spending resources on enforcing arbitrary property restrictions, rather than focusing on actual nuisance problems, is a misuse of government power that needs to be checked. When it comes to local enforcement, a simple common sense principle to follow is this: If a person’s use of their property isn’t creating an actual problem, don’t create a legal and financial problem for them. Governments should uphold each resident’s autonomy to peacefully use their property as they wish so long as others are not put in harm’s way.