By Jean Cole
It takes nearly as long to get overgrown grass and weeds cut in the city of Athens as it takes to get a dilapidated building demolished, one city official said Monday.
City Attorney Shane Black shared that point and others with City Council members during their regular meeting Monday.
Black and Erik Waddell of the Public Works Department outlined the process for abating dilapidated structures and grass and weeds.
Mayor Ronnie Marks said city officials have been taking steps to streamline the process, particularly for grass and weeds, during the past year, and they hope the state Legislature will help with that process this coming year. Currently, Athens must follow state law on the process of cutting grass and weeds on private property. Legislation introduced last year would have allowed Athens and other Class 6 cities in the state to streamline the process. While the Senate passed the measure, the legislative session ended before the House took it up, Black said.
City officials expect the bill to be reconsidered sometime after the Legislature reconvenes in February 2014. The bill would allow Athens and other cities to create their own process as long as that process did not conflict with state law. Already some larger cities are doing that, such as Opelika-Auburn, Black said.
Currently, the city deals with overgrown grass and weeds in two ways, including having an Athens Police Department code-enforcement officer contact the property owner and ask him or her to mow the grass or cut the weeds.
“The vast majority of cases are remedied by contacting the owners,” Black noted.
In cases where the owner is unknown or absent, the city must first try to identify the owner or owners and give them notice to abate the problem. This can be a lengthy process involving research, certified mail, newspaper notices and even installing two large signs on the property for 30 days, which Black said are large enough “to be seen from space.”
“The grass and weeds are growing all through this process,” the city attorney noted.
If an owner takes no action, the city decides whether to cut or hire someone else to do the work. Once the grass or weeds are cut, the city tries to collect the cost. If the cost — which can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $2,000 — the debt can be placed as a lien on the property, which must be paid when property taxes are due each year, Black said.
If the lien is not paid, the property could be sold and the city would collect its debt, he said.
Councilman Jimmy Gill asked if owners who repeatedly fail to cut their grass year after year could be hauled into court to “give them some (jail) time.”
Black said that is possible when the owner is known and goes through the city court but the repeat offenders are usually those unidentified or absent property owners. He hopes to streamline the notification process and the way repeat offenders are handled in the future.
City Council members did vote Monday to abate weeds and grass at six properties, including 606 S. Houston St., 1505 Levert Ave., 701 Hereford Drive, 1101 S. Houston St., 18738 N. Jefferson St. and 1412 N. Houston St.