Plenty of people will tell you that corn ought to be knee-high by the Fourth of July-but in downtown Grand Forks, the greenery isn't too far behind.
Plants growing in the berm next to 421 DeMers Avenue-the office building on the corner of Fifth Street-have drawn at least four complaints to the Grand Forks Health Department since June 20, said Javin Bedard, the department's environmental health manager. A variety of plants are growing in the space, including multiple types of ankle-high plants, as well as some that are nearly 3 feet tall in some places, with what appear to be flower buds and long, filamented seeds swaying in the breeze.
Henry Howe, an attorney and owner of the property, says the plants-many of which he said are goatsbeard flowers-are there because he likes it that way.
"If I didn't want them to look that way, I would have a mowed them," he said. "It's not that I'm lazy or didn't look out the window or those things. I like having the wildflowers there. ... There's some odds and ends in there. That's OK."
The Health Department sees it differently. Bedard said the space doesn't meet city code and must be mowed.
"It's not a flower bed that's maintained free of grass, so it needs to be mowed," said Javin Bedard
"The grass is long, and is thereby a violation of city code," he said.
Back and forth
The difference in opinion between the Health Department and Howe touched off with a June 21 letter from the department, requesting that the "tall grass and weeds" on the berm be cut. The letter points out that if it wasn't done within three days, the city would trim it, and Howe would face a fee of $150 plus double the price of the cutting itself.
The letter cites city code designating "weeds and long grass" as a nuisance, and placing responsibility on property owners to keep their berms in check.
On June 24, Howe fired back.
"I received your rude and rather bizarre 'NOTICE,' " reads a letter from Howe on file with the Health Department and addressed to Bedard. "My initial objection is that since your initial approach is to threaten, bluster and demand, it does not appear that you are well-suited for your position."
Howe goes on to note that the terms "weeds" and "tall grass" are not defined in the ordinance, and points out in particular the goatsbeard plants.
"Unless you have some valid authority ... that these are 'weeds,' they are going to stay on my property until the end of the season," he wrote to Bedard.
Contacted by phone on Wednesday, Howe said he would prefer Health Department officials issue him a citation, allowing him to argue the point in court-he pointed out that "charges" are listed as a result of some ordinance violations on the initial letter-to more clearly define exactly what the ordinance means. Right now, he said, the ordinance seems like it could be applied more or less arbitrarily, which he said is unconstitutional, and he wondered about the legality of ornamental plants in front of several other buildings in the city.
But the Health Department responded differently. In a letter dated July 6, Bedard said the Health Department had determined the area should be mowed regularly.
"If you care to grow flowers at the business, please do so in a flower bed that is maintained free of long grass, and not on the city berm," Bedard wrote in the letter. He added in a phone interview that the department's recent letter reflects the typical means by which these matters are resolved.
Howe has until July 13 to mow the berm. The order does not affect a row of plants in a raised dirt enclosure along the side of the office.
Bedard added that this case involved more legal back-and-forth than others like it, but said that, at its core, the matter is relatively common. The Health Department received 123 such complaints about long grass and the like during June, he said.
Emily Montgomery, executive director of the Empire Arts Center, said she hopes that the berm gets mowed, noting that Empire officials have worked hard to keep their own building's appearances up.
"We hope that our neighbors feel the same way and take pride in their buildings, because I view downtown as the welcome mat for the community," Montgomery said, though she pointed out that it doesn't personally bother her all that much.
Howe said he has considered seeking an injunction against the Health Department's order.
"That would be one option," he said. "I'm thinking out loud. Another option is to mow it; another option is to do something else."