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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/7/21

Time to Get Government Off Our Lawns

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It's spring, and for many Americans that means it's time to drag out the mower and trimmer, invest in various seeds, feeds, pesticides, etc., and quite possibly put the water bill on steroids with daily sprinkler operation. According to the American Time Use Survey, the average American spends 70 hours -- nearly two full work weeks -- on lawn maintenance every year.

The lawn is such a familiar part of everyday American life that it might seem like the natural state of things. In reality, it's evolved over the last two centuries from an aristocratic plaything to what Washington Post columnist Christopher Ingraham rightly calls a "soul-crushing timesuck" that most of us would be better off without.

More to the point, the lawn is effectively a regressive tax scheme that benefits the sellers of expensive equipment and those who use that equipment in our stead if we can afford to hire them.

Lawns originated with the European nobility of the late Middle Ages -- people who owned plenty of land and could afford staff (assisted by large herds of sheep) to keep the grass cut short. By the 18th century, lawns were places for snobbish parties and social games such as croquet and tennis.

The first lawnmowers appeared in the 1830s, and over the next century, culminating with the introduction of "affordable" gas-powered push mowers, lawns became increasingly popular with "lower-class" imitators of the rich.

But until after World War 2, most of us regular people, even if we had houses, still didn't have "lawns." We had "yards." Yards were generally smaller, and were more likely to be bare dirt or vegetable garden than carefully manicured grass of a single species.

Yards became lawns as they got bigger and as they became situated in the post-war cookie-cutter housing developments where developers or homeowner associations promoted property-value-preserving uniformity. You had to have a "lawn" of St. Augustine grass kept to no more than three inches in height for the same reason you couldn't paint your house pink or put your old Chevy up on blocks in the driveway.

Local governments, seeing an irresistible opportunity to pass new ordinances, took their cue from the developers and HOAs and joyfully added lawn care to their already endless excuses for levying fines on the neglectful and recalcitrant.

The ill effects go beyond lost time, wasted money, and forced dealings with nosy bureaucrats. In addition to reduced biodiversity (exacerbated by ordinances dictating a few types of acceptable lawn vegetation) and the use of millions of pounds of unnecessary pesticides every year, Ted Steinberg tells us in American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, our palsied hands spill 17 million gallons of gas -- half again as much as the Exxon Valdez vomited onto Alaska's coastline in 1989 -- every year while refueling lawn maintenance equipment.

Xeriscaping, ornamental and vegetable gardening, etc. are increasingly popular alternative approaches to yard use. But for those of us who really want to be done with lawns, an important first step is getting governments off of them.

 

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Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


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3 people are discussing this page, with 4 comments  Post Comment


David Wieland

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Methinks you've been sucking lemons. Saying that "the lawn is effectively a regressive tax scheme" is a weird thing to say about a landscape feature that most of us find enjoyable, whether in a public space or our own yard. They also serve a useful role in the environment, being favourable terrain for some wildlife. How much time or money one spends on it is an individual choice unless it's neglected (or disrupted) so much that it's a nuisance source of pests or abundant weeds. Or perhaps if one is in a community with overzealous regulations. It sounds like you may be burdened with over-regulation. You don't need to take out your frustration on lawns. But weeds are a worthy target! 😁

Submitted on Wednesday, Apr 7, 2021 at 9:00:58 PM

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Thomas Knapp

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"Or perhaps if one is in a community with overzealous regulations. It sounds like you may be burdened with over-regulation."

Bingo, sort of. I live in a rural area where nobody gives a damn now, but for 12 years I lived in a St. Louis suburb that had more pages of ordinances than it had residents and regulated everything right down to the number of holes per square inch in window screens.

When it came to lawns, that town's government dictated everything from permissible length of grass, to permissible maximum size of bare spots, to which trees and flowering perennials could be grown and how many of them, etc.

It was ridiculous, but not the most ridiculous set of lawn regulations I've seen. I've run across a few in Florida that require a single specific variety of grass, dictate how thickly it must be sown (literally a minimum average number of blades of grass per square inch), etc. I'll definitely have an eye out for such regulations when and if we move from where we are.

If someone really wants a "lawn," hey, more power to them. I just don't think they should be required to have one.

Submitted on Thursday, Apr 8, 2021 at 5:52:09 AM

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Maxwell

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Predictably libertarian, and I agree with it for the most part.

One thing I particularly detest, during the heaviest grass growing season, is the nearly constant roar of internal combustion engines and resulting exhaust fumes during the weekend. I do appreciate a reasonably well kept "yard" (but don't care about my neighbors'). My partner and home co-owner, more so. I've always been fine with using a hand push mower, but she doesn't feel it does an adequate job (and ineffective if the grass gets too tall, or wet). We finally compromised and got an electric mower. Definitely on the luxury end of the "lawn tax" you protest.

Where we live, the city has the right, if the lawn gets too unkempt, to come in and mow it, and bill the homeowner. I must concede, though, that at the local level democracy works pretty well. If enough people objected to such measures the officials responsible for them risk getting voted out. There are no regs about type of grass or pitch of window screens. In practice it's never invoked unless the grass height reaches, say, 3 feet. And it's arguable--the "broken window syndrome"--that a neighborhood tolerant of tall grass may also be fine with passers by throwing litter on your yard, and other un-neighborly behaviors. For the most part, I have no complaints about the manner and extent to which standards are enforced where I live, and no particular desire to move to a more upscale neighborhood where I might.

A lot of what I knew about the history of lawns is from a book called "Geography of Nowhere", by an author in nearby Saratoga Springs, NY.

Submitted on Thursday, Apr 8, 2021 at 11:29:08 AM

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Thomas Knapp

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I have a non-motorized rotary push mower, but I gave up on it some time back and bought an electric mower, too (for not much more than a similar-size gas mower).

I call law ordinances regressive tax schemes precisely because the poorer you are, the greater the percentage of income and/or time you have to spend complying with them.

The rich guy can easily afford a $3,000+ Cub Cadet zero-turn mower and/or an employee or contractor to spend the time using it. For someone busting his or her ass 40-60 hours a week at a non-union job, a yard-sale Walmart brand push mower and some gas can represent a major financial expenditure and an extra hour or two of (unpaid) work each week.

Submitted on Thursday, Apr 8, 2021 at 12:41:04 PM

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