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July 7, 2020

Greenfield weed abatement ordinance sparks concerns over safety

Firefighters asking community to be proactive

GREENFIELD — A recent ordinance change to weed abatement is set to go into effect by late April after it went through a second reading at the March 24 meeting of the Greenfield City Council.

The ordinance begins with cutting weeds and clearing trash, but can snowball into a possible lien issued by the county. However, there are multiple steps in the process, all preventable, before reaching the lien.

The new law will require property owners within the city to cut dry weeds more than three inches in height and clear all combustible trash in their yards. Once notified, the property owner will have at least 15 days to clear the offending weeds or trash.

If the abatement has not occurred by the next city council meeting after that 15-day time period, then the council could authorize a contractor or the public works department to clear the offending area. If that happens, the property owner would be billed for the time of any workers, with the city’s public works and equipment to cost an estimated $1,500.

In the event a property owner doesn’t pay the bill for public works or a contractor, the city would then contact the county to place a lien on the property.

“I realize that a lot of people feel maybe the city is taking a harsh stance,” said Jim Langborg, the city’s fire chief. “The last thing I want to do is to have to get involved in somebody’s property management. It’s much easier if they just maintain their property themselves. It saves me time and I can focus on things that are much more important than somebody mowing their weeds or taking care of the garbage in the back of their house.”

Langborg said residents have asked why the ordinance needed to be changed. He explained it is now in compliance with state and county fire codes, but also noted the severe fire danger of having tall dry weeds and trash on property.

“It’s not out of the question for a grass or field fire to result in a house fire, and under the right circumstances, a house fire could turn into a multiple house fire,” Langborg said.

The winds of South Monterey County are such fire-spreading winds, he noted.

While fires can creep along in short weeds, they aren’t nearly as fast, hot or large as they would be in tall weeds.

“We’ve had fires where structures are left abandoned for a number of years,” said Capt. Carlos Vega, adding that abandoned properties might also be used for trash dumping, which adds to the danger of uncontrolled weeds.

“In Soledad, a fire started in the brush,” Vega said. “It got up to whatever people were dumping, then went into the attic and homes to the side and rear next to it.”

He added, “Everybody knows the Greenfield winds, and that’s all it takes is that wind taking off. You can get that and you have multiple houses going, it’s that fast.”

The ability to control a fire that increases in severity is something that could potentially overwhelm first response. Langborg explained the average staffing at Greenfield Fire Department is four firefighters, who would usually respond to a fire with one or two engines.

One engine company could not quell an out-of-control blaze, and assistance from King City and Soledad would take many minutes to arrive under the best circumstances, meaning a small grass fire would have the potential to threaten multiple houses.

“None of this stuff is as fast as we want it to be,” Langborg said. “When you get your hands full, you get your hands full quick.”

Fires can happen seemingly at random, Vega noted, as it could be down to accidents, carelessness by youth, somebody walking along smoking, someone playing with fireworks or even malicious intent.

Langborg described a recent fire caused by a wheel that came off a trailer, causing the rim to spark as it ground into the street surface.

“The sparks ignited the fire and it took off,” he said.

The ever-present risk of fire in the area’s dry climate has caused the fire department to take a proactive approach with the new abatement ordinance.

“It’s our responsibility to maintain the health and safety of everyone that lives, works and visits this community,” Langborg said.

In regard to the cost of abatement if the city must step in, Langborg said the city coming in with himself on duty and a team of public works personnel with city equipment will be much more expensive than even hiring a gardening service.

“We’ll do it, but we’re going to recover the cost of that abatement,” he said. “It’s not fair to the other taxpayers to have to pay to maintain somebody else’s property.”

He summarized that the best course is to cut the weeds and clear the trash in any yard within the city.

As far as timing, Langborg said the ordinance goes into effect in late April, and the department will wait until the beginning of fire season, typically about that time, before they drive around to do inspections from the street, not entering people’s property.

Repeated inspections will occur throughout fire season, which usually lasts until December. They will especially look out for areas that have typically had tall weeds or have been the sites of repeated fires in the past.

Firefighters will post a notice on the property and attempt to contact the property owner by mail, using county records, to begin the process of abatement enforcement before it goes to the city council.

“During the meeting, they’ll have a public hearing to talk about these lots, and property owners will be made aware of it,” Langborg said. “We welcome them to come to the meeting to describe a hardship. The council will hear public comment and make a decision to either order the fire chief to abate the hazard or not to.”

Langborg added, “We don’t want to impose a hardship on anyone and we would rather spend our time doing other things. But, we will take our responsibility of keeping our community safe by taking action when we have to.”

Vega said the new ordinance should encourage people to be good neighbors, to reduce fire risk for themselves and the people around them, instead of causing each other to scramble with garden hoses in a time of emergency.

“Let’s be proactive,” Vega said.

Sean Roney
Sean Roney
Sean Roney is the reporter for King City Rustler, Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers education, government and general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.
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