Turf wars

Pity the American homeowner that lets his or her lawn go to seed.

In a society that defines aesthetic beauty in length of blades, the appearance of wayward weeds or shaggy greens can quickly become a source of legal contretemps.

Take the time when Rainey Becher let the Queen Anne's lace, a weed that grows more than three feet tall, have full reign over her front yard.

The city of Normal, Ill., charged her with violation of an ordinance that prohibited weeds taller than eight inches on front lawns. The overgrowth presented a sharp contrast in a well-manicured neighborhood, the city said.

Ms. Becher argued that Normal couldn't regulate landscape aesthetics because they are arbitrary. She defended her property as a "cultivated haven for some three dozen varieties of wild flowers," and said the city's definition of "weed" was subject to the person grooming the land.

Becher won, but the court said the city could regulate weeds if it defines the term more precisely (Circuit Court, McLean County, Illinois, 1996).

While artistic expression prevailed in Becher's case, judges' rulings usually try to balance freedom of expression with community concern, often favoring some aesthetic controls.

Stephen Kenney, for example, chose not to mow his lawn one year, asserting that he alone should control its presentation. But the Village of Kenmore, N.Y., where he lived, saw things differently.

Kenney's neighbors complained that his yard was "noxious to look at" and depressing property values. The city subsequently charged him with violating a municipal code that said homeowners couldn't let grass grow beyond a certain height.

Kenney lost the case and then appealed, saying the code was ambiguous and that lawn appearance should fall under First Amendment freedom of speech protection. But he was convicted, and the New York State County Court, Erie, concluded: "The lawn says nothing, it represents nothing, and it symbolizes nothing."

In a strictly legal sense, perhaps. But Georges Teyssot, editor of "The American Lawn" (Princeton Architectural Press) notes that in fact, for many Americans the lawn "becomes a kind of inscription ... something that can express the personality of the people who live on it ... the revelator of feelings, imperfection, and conflicts between neighbors."

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