One of the more intriguing inquiries received by NZCCL has been about council requirements for ratepayers to mow their lawns, often accompanied by threats of fines of up to $5000 if they fail to comply. The reasons given by the councils are usually relating to 'fire risk' or 'encouraging rats', both of which could possibly be regarded as hazards, were it not that there is little evidence that long lawns do either of those things. Indeed the 'fire risk' excuse has been used against the owner of a house that had already been burned down by arson, and next door to a field of dry hay (which might have posed a greater risk), and the 'rat' excuse has been used by a council that itself failed to clear or keep tidy land that it owned itself just down the road.
I surmise that councils do not have any ability to intercede in ratepayers' private property ownership, except if they are carrying out illegal activity, causing a nuisance (for instance if neighbours persistently complain), or if it is a health or safety issue. Councils use the health and safety issue, but really need to justify their use of it in these circumstances. There will be little evidence that long lawns either increase rats or create fires.
It is a different matter if a person is a council (or private) tenant. Then there is usually in the agreement a clause about tenants' obligations to maintain the property. It is explicit in one of the tenancy documents I saw.
The only other possibility is that the council makes lawn maintenance a condition of the development of the property or properties, in which case rate-payers should have specific notice to that effect.
And what about this from Christchurch:
Wellington, Feb 3 NZPA - The Christchurch City Council has admitted it stuffed up when it threatened 11 home owners with fines of up to $5000 for not mowing their lawns, even though their houses were rendered uninhabitable by last year's massive earthquake.
The council sent a letter to residents in the suburbs of Avonside and Dallington reminding them to keep the grass below 100mm, or the council would have it done and bill them, Campbell Live reported.
The quake-damaged houses are condemned but the owners are still paying mortgages and rent to live elsewhere.
Resident Gary Johnson said the notice was unbelievable. He was disgusted at the blunt letter, considering what they had been through.
He had tried mowing his lawn but it was difficult as it was riddled with large cracks. Some residents said they did not have time or money to spend on houses which should be destroyed.
Council inspection and enforcement manager Gary Lennan said the notices had to go out because of the fire hazard, but admitted the process was wrong. "We messed up and we need to do something about it."
The residents were in a special situation and the council could have been more sympathetic. They would be speaking to the owners to see what could be done to help, he said.