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Kyle Potter, Published August 02 2013

Abandoned, undeveloped lots cost Moorhead thousands to mow

MOORHEAD – Abandoned, undeveloped lots in Moorhead caused the city’s recent annual costs for mowing unkempt lawns to skyrocket – to triple or more what Fargo and West Fargo paid each year.

From 2011 through June of this year, Moorhead paid contractors $47,382 to mow nuisance lawns, according to data from the city. That’s compared to $16,714 paid by Fargo and $17,610 by West Fargo over the same time period.

Moorhead city officials say nearly 60 undeveloped plots in Stonemill Estates and Johnson Farms in southern Moorhead – abandoned by developers after the recession hit in 2008 – are largely responsible for the disparity.

Now that the city owns much of the land in the two abandoned properties, its lawn maintenance payments this year are closer in line with its fellow cities in the Red River Valley.

The cities don’t cover the costs with taxpayer dollars; they pass the bill, between $50 and $80, on to the landowner, and charge an “administrative fee.” If the owner doesn’t pay up, it’s tacked on to property taxes through a special assessment.

But Moorhead will eventually swallow the cost of lawn maintenance at Stonemill Estates and Johnson Farms. As those plots of land head to market, the city lowered its asking price for those plots of land to cover the special assessments, which add up to more than $20,000.

‘Not the weed cops’

It starts with a letter from the city: Your grass is too long. You’ve got a week to cut it, or we’ll do it for you.

Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead each have a similar ordinance requiring grass to be 8 inches or shorter. There’s some wiggle room for landscaping – up to 30 percent of a lawn can be taller.

“This isn’t for aesthetic,” said Myron Berglund, director of the environmental health division at Fargo Cass Public Health, but to ensure that lawns aren’t so tall they become a habitat for insects and rodents.

An inspector will measure a lawn to see if it’s in compliance. If not, the owner gets a letter with a notice and about a week to mow it on their own. If the grass or weeds haven’t been cut when inspectors check again, the city sends a contracted mower to cut it.

Moorhead city staff will also check on lawns that look too long while out doing other inspections, said Lisa Vatnsdal, the city’s Community Development Division manager. But she and officials from each city said their approach to mowing problem lawns is primarily driven by complaints from neighbors.

“We’re not the weed cops. We’ve got so many other things to do,” Berglund said.

He said most of the homes where contractors are sent have been foreclosed.

In West Fargo, much of their business is in new subdivisions and vacant lots, West Fargo Public Works’ Chad Zander said.

After forking over just $3,290 to a lawn maintenance contractor in 2010, Moorhead’s costs increased more than 600 percent the following year to $23,395 – nearly triple what Fargo and West Fargo spent in 2011. Drought made 2012 a slow season for mowers, but Moorhead still paid contractors $17,278 – quadruple the bills incurred by the cities west of the river.

Vatnsdal attributed the drastic increase to Stonemill Estates, Johnson Farms and other smaller undeveloped properties that were abandoned.

Once the grass is cut and the weeds are chopped, each city sends an invoice for the cost of the service, and then tacks on their own administrative fee: $25 in Fargo, $50 in West Fargo and $100 in Moorhead.

Vatnsdal said Moorhead’s fee covers the cost of inspections and re-inspections, plus sending the notice to a property owner – everything but the lawnmower and gasoline.

“It’s intended to be a penalty,” Vatnsdal said. “We are not a property maintenance lawn service.”

If a property owner doesn’t pay the bill upfront, it’s added to their property tax bill through special assessments.

“One way or another, we get it back,” Zander said.

Ready for sale

Moorhead has been prepping its lots in Stonemill Estates and Johnson Farms for sale since it officially acquired the plots in January. The City Council set aside $25,000 earlier this year to spruce up the land, and City Manager Michael Redlinger said the vacant lots there are looking better than ever.

Fifty-nine lots, most of them for single-family homes, are now on the market. The 39 plots in Stonemill Estates and 20 lots in Johnson Farms range from $17,500 to $47,000. A handful of lots on those properties had already been purchased.

Those prices account for the special assessments for lawn maintenance that each plot racked up before the city took over, Redlinger said. A total of $15,769 in special assessments was levied on lots at Stonemill Estates. Another $4,443 was tacked onto Johnson Farms lots, according to city records.

Redlinger said one sale is pending for a lot in Johnson Farms, and there are about eight other interested buyers. There have been just a handful of interested buyers at Stonemill Estates, he said.

“Getting these lots ready and in sellable condition has been a great priority for us,” Redlinger said. “It is a much improved situation.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502