Featured Image by Peter Burdon on Unsplash
The city just hung a warning on the doorknob of my home’s front door saying it’s time to mow my lawn. Can the city make me mow my lawn? It doesn’t look that bad to me.
Words by Nelson P. Miller
Get out the lawnmower.
You have the right sense that your ownership carries with it the privilege of getting to choose your property’s use and maintenance. Property ownership is a bundle of legal rights. Primary among those rights is the right to exclude others from your land and then to do as you wish while you occupy your land alone.
Generally, you may sit on your porch and drink iced tea on the hot summer days while your neighbors slave away over the meticulous appearance of their manicured lawns. Yet none of your rights of ownership are absolute. Consider for example your right to exclude others from your land. While that right is extensive – you could bar your mother-in-law from your home and even have the police remove her, although no one would recommend it – the right is not absolute, public necessity may require firefighters to enter or cross your land to put out a fire next door.
Private necessity may require passersby to take momentary shelter in your garage from a severe thunderstorm. A salesperson would even have an implied right of entry to knock on your door unless you had a locked gate or a sign for “no solicitation.” The public official who hung the notice on your door was relying on that implied right of entry. Just as your right of exclusive possession is not absolute, neither is your right to do as you wish with your land. Local zoning laws may place reasonable restrictions on land use and building codes may place reasonable requirements on your construction.
Health and safety laws may prohibit you from dangerous activities. The law of private nuisance would prohibit you from using your land in ways that interfere with neighbors’ enjoyment of their own lands (think pigsty or garbage dump). The law of public nuisance would prohibit your uses from interfering with the health or safety of passersby (think shooting range). Only when those restrictions are so severe that they effectively take your land from you do they run afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment as a regulatory taking. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit local government from taking your property without just compensation. Making you mow your lawn is not a regulatory taking.
You do have other constitutional protections. Under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, the local government must not deny you of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Courts have interpreted the due-process clause to mean that general laws of this kind must be rationally related to a legitimate government end.
So why do you think your local city council enacted this lawn mowing ordinance? Sure, a council of conformists could have been making aesthetic judgments that the city would look better if everyone mowed their lawns. Yet basic property maintenance can have broader effects. Rats, raccoons, snakes, and other animals that carry disease or present safety threats may lurk in unkempt lots. Think too of the broken-window syndrome that poorly maintained property can attract vandalism and crime.
So unless something else is going on, your neighbors are going to get to sit on their porches, drinking tea while watching you mow your lawn. As the sign on your doorknob likely informed you, if you don’t mow your lawn, then the city probably will mow it for you. Then you’ll get a bill for their services. If you don’t like the city’s demand, then talk to the city department about what low maintenance they would accept, or complain to your city councilperson. They may change the law.
If your lawn is no worse than your neighbors, and they did not get the same notice, then find out why. Government officials should not be targeting, discriminating, or retaliating.
To read more from Nelson Miller, check out his book Top 100 Questions Friends & Family Ask a Lawyer on Amazon.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information.