Grass Issue Sparks Foreclosure Debate

BERLIN – A discussion during the Berlin Mayor and Council meeting this week about the growing number of complaints about high grass and unkempt yards eventually came around to a debate about how to handle the vast number of foreclosed properties in the town.

The recent wet weather followed by days of clear skies and sunshine have caused yards all over to sprout up with overgrown grass and weeds, but the same conditions have also kept many property owners from addressing the problem. Planning and Zoning Administrator Chuck Ward said this week the number of complaints about high grass always spikes up this time of year.

“Zoning complaints really roll out in the springtime,” he said. “People are coming out of hibernation and noticing things they have missed during winter. We’ve had a ton of high grass complaints, but we’ve been somewhat lenient because of all the rain.”

However, the sagging economy and the associated foreclosure crisis in towns like Berlin all over Maryland and the country have added a new wrinkle to the annual problem, according to Ward.

“One of the problems we’re running into is that there are more and more homes in foreclosure,” he said. “We can’t always find the right person in charge of maintaining the property. We can try to call the banks or the mortgage holders, but they’re often all over the country. It’s not like the mortgage holder is around the corner at the neighborhood bank.”

Councilwoman Lisa Hall said evidence of the foreclosure crisis, and the associated problems related to the condition of the properties, is sprouting up all over Berlin. Hall cited an example in her neighborhood where tracking down the party responsible for the upkeep of the property would likely be impossible.

“There’s a house on Ann Drive that foreclosed and the bank that foreclosed it went bankrupt,” she said. “It can’t get cut, but I know I’m probably going to end up doing it. I think our neighborhoods need to pull together. Somebody do it this time, and somebody else do it another time.”

Realtor Cam Bunting said the town has the right to cut the grass on problem properties and put the bill in the files. Berlin has to sign off on property transfers in town limits and stamp the transfer, an action typically done only after outstanding electric bills and other fees owed to the town are cleared up by the new property owner.

“You don’t have to chase anything down,” she said. “You have the authority and the right to put the cost of cutting the grass on the transfer stamp. The town can decide not to stamp the transfer until the cost of cutting the grass is taken care of, just like outstanding electric bills and other bills.”

Town Attorney Dave Gaskill agreed the town had the authority to cut the grass and bill the property owner without resorting to placing liens on the residences.

“They have to call here to get the transfer anyway,” he said. “We can just cut the grass and put the bill or bills in the property’s file. It doesn’t have to be a lien, we can put in the file anything that’s outstanding.”

Meanwhile, the high grass issue sparked a large debate about the growing problem with foreclosed properties in Berlin.

“This is going to be a problem going forward as this continues,” said Hall. “I know of 11 houses in foreclosure in Franklin Knoll right now. It’s happening in Decatur Farms and all over town.”

Mayor Gee Williams said the town needed to explore its options regarding maintaining foreclosed properties.

“I think we need to make a proactive policy to take care of these lots so they don’t run down the neighborhoods,” said Williams. “Ironically, this is a problem in some of our newer neighborhoods.”

In the meantime, Hall suggested Berlin’s communities band together with a short-term solution to keeping the neighborhoods up to standard.

“Maybe some of the neighborhood associations can get a campaign together to keep their communities looking nice,” said Hall.

However, while the town has the right and authority to go onto problem properties, cut the grass and do other maintenance at the owner’s expense, Gaskill warned having citizen groups take up the task could be problematic.

“I wouldn’t advise that,” said Gaskill. “There are liability issues, not to mention trespassing. What if you go on somebody’s property to cut the grass and hit a gas line or something. It’s okay for the town to do it, because its insulated somewhat from liability issues, but I wouldn’t recommend private citizens going on other people’s property uninvited.”

In a related issue, a citizen who lives on West Street told the council while getting the grass cut is part of the problem, cleaning up the clippings after the job is also creating a nuisance in his neighborhood.

“They’re cutting the grass, which is nice, but they’re leaving the clippings all over the street,” he said. “There are three drains in the street and they clog every time somebody cuts their grass and my end of the street floods. I’ve lived here 30 years and I take a lot of pride in my property. I think everybody needs to take pride in Berlin.”