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The surprisingly interesting jurisprudence of weed ordinances

Lawns are one of the most ubiquitous landscapes in the United States and one of the most potent symbols of American suburbia. They serve as an ideal backdrop to the single family home,  providing just enough space to instill a feeling of privacy, and just enough greenery to foster a connection with nature. Lawns have unified the landscape and transcended social, political, racial, and religious divides like few things can. Michael Pollan, in this regard, compared their influence to the the interstate highway system, fast food, and even television. This deep cultural identification with lawns, he says, also explains “why lawn care is regarded as such an important civic responsibility.”

There’s another reason why lawns and lawn care have become imbued with such strong moral and civic qualities: the antithesis of a well-maintained lawn—the unkempt, uncontrolled, and overgrown yard—is as potent a symbol of failure and decay as the lawn is a symbol of hope and idealism. Few things can conjure feelings of abandonment, neglect, disinvestment, and dispair like a house being slowly consumed by the underbrush.

With symbolism this entrenched and powerful, it’s no wonder that conflicts over lawn maintenance incite people to file complaints, cut their neighbors’ lawns themselves, and even resort to violence.

Weed ordinances were developed long ago as a solution to these sorts of lawn problems, just as spite fence laws evolved to mediate boundary conflicts between vengeful neighbors. Although the earliest weed laws were agricultural measures, they were quickly adapted for use in cities and towns, where they were used to mandate minimum lawn care standards and prevent the growth of nuisance vegetation. The basic mechanism used in these ordinances—a maximum height limit for nonornamental vegetation, usually set somewhere around eight or twelve inches—has hardly changed over the last century.

In addition to protecting neatly maintained neighborhoods from the scourge of overgrown yards, weed ordinances have become the subject of a surprisingly interesting body of lawn care jurisdprudence. Given their widespread use and long historical pedigree, it’s not surprising that most courts uphold weed ordinances with little hesitation. But weed laws aren’t immune from constitutional attacks, and property owners sometimes win. So for the benefit of lawn enthusiasts and weed lovers alike, I now present to you an overview of the Law of Weeds.

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