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O'Fallon council chops out grass-cutting bill

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A bill that would have tightened an agricultural exemption to grass-cutting rules in O'Fallon has been withdrawn.

The City Council withdraw the bill from its agenda Thursday after an earlier work session discussion that touched on the city's enforcement of zoning and code regulations.

Council President Pro-tem Bob Howell, Ward 4, said a personal inspection of 53 parcels by a group of council members indicated as many as two-thirds may have been in violation of requirements for a 20-foot cutback of grass from the road right of way or curb.

Perhaps three to five of the properties were in compliance, said Howell, who along with Ward 2 council members Jim Pepper and Rose Mack recently drove around looking at properties.

"I think the city has failed residents and businesses," Howell said. Many of the complaints the city received about tall grass and weeds could have been resolved if the city was more strict with the cut-back requirement, he said.

Tall grass this year prompted officials to weed through existing ordinances and consider tightening requirements for grass cutting and weed control. The city requires grass to be no higher than 8 inches on most lots.

Residents have complained about uncut grass on undeveloped lots and within road rights of way, including Mexico and Bryan roads, Highway K and other locations.

Other residents have complained about being required to cut grass in right of way adjacent to their property. To reduce the city's mowing costs, the council in 2010 approved an ordinance making adjacent property owners — including subdivisions and individual homeowners — responsible for cutting within road right of way.

The bill before the council last week would have limited the agricultural exemption to the city's mowing requirements for nonresidential properties of two or more acres where crops are planted. The grass still would have to be cut back 20 feet from curbs and road right of ways.

The existing ordinance exempts lots of two acres or less where crops are planted from the 8-inch height requirement, but the grass still has to be cut back 20 feet from the curb or road right of way.

Some owners of undeveloped lots have grown crops such as wheat or soybeans for a tax break. St. Charles County says property can be assessed as agricultural if it is planted, even if it isn't zoned agricultural.

During its July 12 meeting, the council heard objections to the proposed ordinance from property owners who plant crops and receive the tax break. "It would force a lot of people to sell their land because they can't afford the taxes," said Glenn Keeven, one of the property owners.

Mack and other council members said it was never their intention to take tax breaks away from property owners. After taking the recent tour of properties, Mack said last week she thought the bill should be withdrawn.

"I thought it raises more questions than it answers," she said.

Later, the council approved Howell's motion to withdraw the bill from the meeting agenda.

In the work session, council members asked City Administrator Keith Riesberg and Planning and Development Director David Woods how the city initiates property inspections. Riesberg said the city typically responds to complaints about high grass or weeds.

Woods acknowledged inspectors might not have strictly enforced the 20-foot setback on some properties. Riesberg said inspectors also got busy with building inspections later in the year.

Riesberg said the city can provide more information about code enforcement and the council can decide in the next budget whether to hire more inspectors.

Mayor Bill Hennessy said he would like city inspectors to "be more proactive than reactive."

Councilman John Haman Jr., Ward 3, said the existing ordinance is fine, but he suggested strong penalties for violations. "We need to be able to sink our teeth into this ordinance and make it hurt if people don't follow our ordinances," Haman said.

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