A Florida man may lose his home—all because he didn’t mow his lawn.
The city of Dunedin, FL, authorized foreclosing on the home of Jim Ficken last week because the 69-year-old hasn’t paid the nearly $30,000 in fines the town had stuck him with for not keeping his grass under 10 inches. The city charged the retiree $500 for every day that his grass didn’t comply with city code.
“It’s very upsetting,” says Ficken, a former production assistant at a radio station. “I can’t believe something like this can happen in America.”
Cases like this, while uncommon, aren’t unheard of. Cities and homeowners associations can levy high fines—and even foreclose on properties—if homeowners break local codes. Offenses run the gamut from not paying property taxes to not bringing structures up to code. Folks who pile trash outside their homes can also run afoul of local authorities.
And they often have little recourse beyond trying to negotiate with the city to lower the fines—or hiring an attorney.
Ficken, who can’t afford the snowball of fines, struck back by suing the city and its Code Enforcement Board. He’s seeking to keep his home and stop the city from going after Dunedin residents who can’t afford hefty fines.
“A $30,000 fine and the loss of your home is not proportional to the offense of having tall grass,” says Ficken’s attorney, Ari Bargil. His nonprofit law firm, the Institute for Justice, agreed to take on the case at no cost to Ficken.
Hefty code violation fines are also a way for cities to raise money, Bargil points out. Dunedin collected nearly $1.3 million code enforcement fines in 2018—a substantial jump from just $34,000 in 2007, according to Ficken’s lawsuit.
The fines began in July when Ficken was attending to his late mother’s estate in South Carolina. He was there for about two months fixing up her condo and getting it ready for sale, he says.
He hired someone to tend to his yard, but he didn’t realize that person passed away unexpectedly. When Ficken returned home, his lawn was growing wild and his mower was broken. He claims he cut the grass after he bought a new lawn mower.
Ficken didn’t realize he was being fined until a city official outside of his property told him. By that time, he owed about $25,000. His home is worth only $142,800, according to city records.
The fines were so high because Ficken had been racking up overgrown grass complaints since 2007, according to the city. He was classified as a repeat offender, and therefore wasn’t given any time to correct the offense by mowing his grass. Ficken also missed his hearing, claiming to have already booked his airline tickets to South Carolina to attend to his mother’s estate.
Neighbors had complained about the yard, Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski told the Tampa Bay Times.
Miami-based foreclosure attorney Bruce Jacobs recommends that folks who wind up on the wrong side of city officials or HOAs fix the problem immediately—and document it. They need to collect receipts and take photos showing the problem has been solved. Then they should go and talk to someone in code enforcement about getting the issue resolved. And they should make sure to attend every hearing on the matter.
“These HOAs and the code enforcement people, you don’t mess with them,” says bankruptcy attorney Paul Urich, who’s based in Orlando, FL. “They can take your house even if you’re current on your mortgage or it’s paid off.”
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Source: Housing Trends Feed