Federal Court Rules Florida Man Must Pay City $30,000 in Overgrown Lawn Fines

If reading about Dunedin, Florida homeowner Jim Ficken's recent brush with the law(n) doesn't motivate you to hop on your riding mower, nothing will.

On April 26, a federal court upheld the Gulf Coast city's decision to issue 71-year-old Ficken nearly $30,000 in fines for allowing his grass to exceed the requisite 10 inches in height for several months in the summer of 2018. The city claims the long grass could "draw snakes, rats or other vermin" and hurt neighborhood property values, according to WLNS.

"I am disappointed that the court sided with Dunedin, but what happened to me is wrong, and I will continue to fight," Ficken, who is represented by attorneys Ari Bargil and Andrew Ward of the Institute for Justice (IJ), said, according to an IJ press release.

In July 2018, Ficken left town to see to his late mother's South Carolina estate. During his absence, his lawn became overgrown by city standards because his landscaper died, he said. Such code violations are punishable by a fine of as much as $500 per day, according to The Tampa Bay Times. By the time Ficken returned home two months later, he owed the city an enormous sum of money: $29,833.50, to be exact.

"The city's behavior toward Jim is outrageous," Bargil said in the press release. "This ruling emboldens code enforcement departments across the state to impose crippling financial penalties and it empowers them to do so without first notifying a property owner that they are potentially going to be fined."

In May 2019, Ficken sued Dunedin after the city attempted to collect payment by foreclosing on his home. In the suit, Ficken alleges that he should not have to cough up the money because the code enforcement officers did not make an attempt to alert him to the situation when it was occurring, among other reasons, according to the Times.

However, the federal court concluded that the officers had done their due diligence by notifying Ficken that his property had been subject to investigation for the duration of his absence upon his return, according to the press release.

If nothing else, the protracted legal battle has prompted Dunedin to reconsider its hard-line stance on property maintenance.

"While the City has prevailed in this case, the City has undertaken a thorough and careful analysis and review of its code enforcement policies and procedures," representatives said in a statement that was issued in response to the court decision, according to the Times. "The current policies reflect modifications emphasizing compliance over enforcement."

Ficken plans to appeal the ruling.

A man mows his lawn.
In this image, a man mows his lawn. Florida homeowner Jim Ficken landed in legal hot water for his long grass. Getty Images