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Efforts to change the definition of “weed” in the City’s Weeds Ordinance ran into a thicket of confusion and opposition at the June 5 City Council meeting, as competing interests – the City’s interest in curtailing overgrown, rat-harboring properties and the environmental community’s interest in permitting formerly banned but butterfly-friendly vegetation – could not be easily reconciled.

Under the present ordinance (8-5-3), property owners must “cut the weeds on the property and the abutting parkway … so that such weeds shall not exceed 8 inches in height.” Ornamental grasses can be of any height.

If the weeds are taller than 8 inches, then the City has the authority to cut the weeds – either with its own crews or an outside contractor – and then put a lien on the property for the cost of the weed-cutting. The provision that allows the City to place a lien on the property it mows complicated the effort to change the definition of “weeds.”

As proposed, the amended ordinance softens the lien language, changing a provision requiring the City to place a lien by giving discretion – a lien “shall” be recorded would have been changed to “may” be recorded.

“This seems, for lack of a better word, crazy to me,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. He asked if liens were being placed all over town. “This is wacky,” he added of the lien language.

 It seemed simple on the agenda, as the goal was to remove the current laundry list of bad weeds from the current ordinance and replace it with “the species listed by the Illinois Noxious Weed Law,” and add poison ivy (anticipating no objection there) and wild parsnip.

 The ordinance initially passed out of committee, but, on motion by Ald. Braithwaite, was immediately reconsidered and kept in committee. The two competing interests needed to be more fully considered and addressed, the committee decided.

 The committee tripped over the root purpose of the ordinance. “I have a large yard,” said Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward. “I don’t know what weeds are good or bad.”

“If someone is concerned if something is a weed or not, can they bring it in and you’ll tell them?” First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske asked of Environmental Services Bureau Chief Paul D’Agostino.

“Or they can call us and we’ll come out and look,” said Mr. D’Agostino.

 Christopher Kucharczyk of the Environment Board said the Board’s efforts to revise the ordinance had two purposes – “first, to remove [from the “bad weeds” list] certain plants that are beneficial to monarch butterflies” like milkweed, and, second, to “turn the lien from mandatory to discretionary. All this ‘crazy’ is already in the ordinance.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said enforcement of the ordinance is triggered by public complaints, and the City is “not going around looking for bad weeds.”

When receiving a complaint, though, Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, wondered how enforcement could be possible.

“The intent was to allow people to grow beneficial plants,” said Mr. Kucharczyk.

“Intentional weeds versus ‘weed’ weeds,” summarized Ald. Simmons.

Not so fast. “We cut it all,” said the City’s Health Manager Evonda Thomas-Smith. “I understand the spirit of the Environment Board’s” efforts in trying to permit safe weeds, she said, “but if there’s a [rodent] harborage, it is cut. From the Health Department’s perspective, good weeds or bad weeds or grass or any other vegetation matters not one bit. If overgrown yards are creating safe homes for rats, the City cuts it all.”

“So I’m clear, the safe weeds … are a problem with rodents?” asked Ald. Simmons.

“They have been in the past,” said Ms. Thomas-Smith.

The Environment Board did not consult with the Health Department in proposing the revisions, said Mr. Kucharczyk.

“This ordinance is trying to do two completely different and complicated things,” said Ald. Fiske. It attempts to address both rodent harborage and define permitted landscaping vegetation.

“Lead us out of this,” said Ald. Braithwaite. He was the lone “no” vote when the matter initially went to vote.

The committee voted to send the matter back to the Environment Board, and Ms. Thomas-Smith agreed to work with the Committee to address the two starkly different purposes of the ordinance.