Trimmed budget allows tall weeds to grow in Merced

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 8, 2013 

— City workers cleared significantly fewer properties with overgrown grass and brush in 2012 than previous years, according to city of Merced Fire Chief Mike McLaughlin.

City workers cleared three properties in 2012, down from 24 the previous year, according to numbers from the Fire Department. Overgrown vegetation can be a fire hazard.

McLaughlin said the year's tight budget meant fewer lots were dealt with.

"Part of that is budget driven, but it also was us looking at it from a risk-management perspective," McLaughlin said. "We're going to look at those lots that pose risk to citizens, to community, to neighboring properties."

McLaughlin said the threshold for an acceptable amount of overgrowth changed in 2011. While there are specific limits, he said fire officials are trained to assess the potential threat on a case-by-case basis.

"We've been more conservative on our approach of what's considered dangerous," he said.

The cost for cleanup for the 2012 lots was about $4,700.

The Fire Department has recovered half of that, McLaughlin said, and received approval from the Merced City Council on Tuesday to place liens on two properties for the rest.

The council approved a $582 lien on a home in the 1800 block of Pebble Beach Place and a $1,754 lien on a property in the 300 block of S Street.

The cleanup costs for 2012 were down from previous years. In 2011, the city spent $18,000 on abatement, but received $57,000 back in payments. Some of the payments may have been carried over from previous years, McLaughlin said.

However, in 2011, the city was in the hole almost $3,000 after spending $42,000 on cleanup.

The amount expended on cleanup has dropped every year since 2008, when the city spent $77,000 on abatement for 645 lots.

Much of the cleanup happened as people were walking away from their upside-down homes during the housing crisis that began in late 2006. Many stopped caring for their homes and lawns when they owed more money than their houses were worth.

Merced County ranked first in California for foreclosure filings in 2009, and sixth among counties nationwide. One in seven homes in the county had been foreclosed on between 2006 and 2010, according to Foreclosure Radar, a California reporting service.

Fire officials sent out 3,383 first-warning notices to property owners in 2012. While that number is up from 2011, it's a downward trend from the more than 5,000 notices sent out in 2009 and nearly 6,000 in 2010.

Generally, fire officials require property owners to trim vegetation at least one foot away from the fence line. Dried or dead grass must be trimmed to 2 inches tall or less.

"Our goal is to shorten the fuel to the point to make the fire manageable," McLaughlin said.

Reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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