When the primary sponsor of a piece of legislation says, "I don't know what's in it. I didn't know I signed it," you know you're in trouble. When he calls a Tennessean reporter's interest in the legislation "racist," you know you're in Ludye's world.
At least that's the situation this week, as, at press time, Metro Council members Ludye Wallace and Diane Neighbors were expected to sheepishlyor in Wallace's case, testilywithdraw a poorly written ordinance that would limit the height of "grass, weeds or other vegetation" to 12 inches if they can be seen from a street, sidewalk or alley. What's more, the bill would explicitly outlaw a host of "nuisance noxious weeds," including among others Sow Thistle, Johnson Grass, Pig Weed and Curly Dock.
Your favorite loblolly pine could also put you in violation of the ordinance, and if there's Poison Ivy nearby, forget ityou'd owe a $50 fine (plus $62.50 in court costs). Same goes for folks with tall yellow sunflowers growing within 10 feet of a property line. Cut them down or you'd face consequences for endangering "the health, safety and welfare of the citizens" of Davidson County, presumably because rats might live in those sunflowers.
If this all sounds foolish, that's because it is. Which is why co-sponsor Neighbors acknowledged to the Scene that the bill "could be interpreted in some very bizarre ways." According to the council member, the legislation was written jointly by the Metro Health and Codes departments and signedwhether or not Wallace knew itby the two council members due to their respective involvement with the council's codes and health committees. "I knew there were issues with it from the time it was filed," Neighbors says. "They had good intentions, I think, in terms of rodent control and snakes...but just made it a little too all-encompassing."
Neighbors says she and Wallace at some point realized it was bad legislation. She wanted to defer it for two meetings "to make it rational," but Wallace, she says, has opted to withdraw the bill altogether. (The Scene couldn't reach him for comment; his voice mailbox was full.)
But how did the bill make it this far, anyway? William Parker, Metro's assistant director of environmental health services, says his department crafted the legislation in response to public outcry. "We get thousands of calls a month about overgrown vegetation on vacant lots," he says. Asked if the current bill was indeed a little broad, Parker agreed, "There are some parts of this that could be construed as unenforceable or a little picky. Certainly we don't mean cutting trees and domesticated flowers and plants." He says the spirit of the proposed law, if not the letter, is in the right place.
In legal matters, though, the letter of the law is what counts, and no one knows that better than 66-year-old activist Karl Meyer. Meyer, who has been fighting Metro lawn control ordinances since 2000, first won a court appeal against the health department and has since been granted a managed vegetation exemption for his North Nashville collective, Greenlands. In Meyer's lush yard grow squash, beets, peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and several berries, and he wants to see that no one is punished for growing diverse flora on their property provided the garden is maintained.
"I'm not opposed to an ordinance that promotes care and maintenance of vegetation so that it looks attractive," he says. But, Meyer notes, public policy shouldn't promote what he terms the "Astroturf aesthetic" over his own lawn-care style of "luxuriant diversity," because the former is bad for the environment. "A two-stroke gasoline engine generates as much air pollution in one hour as driving 40 1995-model cars for an hour," he says. (Metro Health Department's own air quality Web site cites a similar statistic.)
Meyer launched a vigorous but polite campaign against the failed legislation, writing and calling all 40 council members. (Only one returned his call.) He then drove 207 miles around Nashville to see how many Metro Council members potentially would be in violation of the proposed ordinance. (And no, the gas-guzzling irony isn't lost on the environmentalist.) He found 21 law-breaking lawns, including those of sponsors Wallace and Neighbors.
Beyond making the council look inept, Meyer says the whole legislative snafu is a black eye for the health department in particular. "It is very embarrassing that the health department did this, because four years ago I spent two hours with a lawyer and a health department official discussing these issues," he says, noting that he offered to help them craft an enforceable policy similar to a proposal he sent to council members and the Scene. "Presumably they've been working on this ordinance for four years, but look what they come up with."
Four years may be a stretch. A spokesperson in the mayor's office says the health and codes departments have been working on the legislation "for a while now...at least since the fall." While Hizzoner's people don't seem too embarrassed by the lawn care affair, they do preach reconciliation and unity. "I think we want to make sure the bill's sponsors are comfortable with the bill," says the spokesperson. "So we will work closely with them to make sure that this bill is something we can all agree on."
Neighbors says the departments can rewrite and resubmit the ordinance if they want to, and it's a good bet she and Wallace will take a look at any new legislation before putting their names on it.
Meyer, meanwhile, says the health department should be more responsive to health science and less reactive to public opinion. "Our health department is driven by public relations and tries to use science to justify it," he says, "and it's impossible because science just doesn't support their policies."
Nonetheless, he understands the need for people-driven public policy. After all, says the nature-loving radical, Wallace's backyard is an unmaintained, overgrown messand a likely health hazard. "Even if I were living next door to his house, I would feel uncomfortable."
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