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Saturday, March 5, 2016

Public Space: How Much Are You Willing to Pay to Mow a Lawn Nobody Uses?

I’ve written in the past about my volunteer work on my township’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) advising the township commissioners and staff on environmental matters facing the township.  Historically, they have brushed off our advice.  In the last year or two, however, as some rather self-serving commissioners have cycled off of the board, the board has begun to become more open to the EAC’s suggestions. But there is still some progress to be made.

This is township-owned land that is regularly mowed but is almost never
used by neighbors for any recreational activities. (photo:Google Maps) 
One of the issues that I have been trying to get some action on over the past couple of years has been mowing of township open space properties. I’m not talking about active-use parks and sports fields, which are rightfully very well maintained. I’m talking about areas that the pubic does not actively use. The areas that would be best left as natural open spaces. For no other reason than, “That’s how we’ve always done it,” the township regularly mows township-owned fields throughout our 22-square mile municipality on a regular basis.  Some areas are mowed on a weekly basis and others a few times a season. The current Public Works regime insists on mowing so much land that the township parks crew is unable to do it all, so a mowing contractor is hired. The mowing contract has been a multi-year affair, to the tune of about $90,000 per year.  One of the most wasteful aspects about the mowing contract is that it requires mowing the designated areas on a weekly basis, regardless of whether they need it. So if an area is waterlogged from a week that saw 10 inches of rain, they mow grass that has standing water, often leaving ruts in the grass. Or if we are sweltering in early August without having seen more than half an inch of rain in the past 3 weeks, they mow the brown, crispy grass, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.  Not very picturesque.

Here's an example of the effort wasted on regularly mowing all open
space parcels. With this slope, this land is not usable for pick-up football
or other informal sporting activities. (photo:Google Maps)
Public Works justifies their mowing program by saying that they have some residents calling to complain when an area is allowed to revert to natural vegetation and is mowed just once annually to keep unwanted woody vegetation in check.  I would not be surprised if many of those callers are the same squeaky wheels that whine about having to pay property taxes to the township.

We can't have it both ways, though. We can't mow every township-owned parcel weekly, regardless of drought or rain-soaked ground, and then complain the township isn't maintaining pavilions and baseball dugouts in our parks. Unfortunately, the expectation in too many heads is that all public areas will be mowed and manicured to look the way that lawns look on TV. Unfortunately, Hollywood lawns often achieve their perfection with green spray paint and are about as genuine as many of their leading ladies.  Golf courses and major league ballparks have been painting their grass for years to avoid any perceived imperfections for their clientele with unrealistic expectations of perfect green turf.
The township feels a need to mow stormwater basins as perfectly as
they would their own front yards. More wasted effort.(photo:Google Maps)
But a municipality is not a business, and it should not try to compete with the appearance of the turf at golf courses and professional ballparks.  A municipality is supposed to maintain publicly owned lands so that they are safe and available for residents to enjoy in a reasonable manner. Mine does a good job maintaining our sports fields.  But  I do not think that driving past an unused  9-acre parcel and expecting it to look perfectly mowed for the 5 seconds you drive past it justifies spending $1,000 per year of taxpayer money mowing it.

This year should be the last for the current mowing contract. Hopefully, when the current commissioners consider the 2017 township budget, they will be decline to renew the mowing contract in favor of doing all mowing in-house and on a less frequent basis.  The best thing for these fields would be to replant them with native grasses and native wildflowers to become meadows that only need to be mowed once per year. Less mowing means cost savings for taxpayers.  And wildflowers and native grasses mean food for songbirds and pollinators. That is the kind of picturesque, low-impact habitat that I want my tax dollars supporting.