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His House Is Worth $125K. Fine Over His Lawn Is $30K

Jim Ficken's grass exceeded 10 inches in length over two months last summer
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 13, 2019 1:32 PM CDT
Updated May 18, 2019 3:15 PM CDT

(Newser) – When Jim Ficken spoke to the press recently in front of his Dunedin, Florida, home, his lawn was neatly cut. That hasn't always been the case, and that fact has made national news. That's because last year Ficken was fined $500 a day over his grass, which exceeded 10 inches in height, ultimately landing him a fine of $30,000. He didn't pay up, and on Tuesday, Dunedin's Code Enforcement Board moved to foreclose on his home. The 69-year-old filed suit the same day. Inside the story:

  • The initial problem: The grass problem dates back to 2015, when Ficken traveled to South Carolina to help his dying mother. While away, he was cited for the length of his grass. That citation stipulated that he would be classified a repeat offender if he violated city code over the next five years, reports the Tampa Bay Times. According to the city, he did.
  • The summer of 2018: His mother died in 2016, and he spent two weeks in South Carolina in July 2018 settling her estate. The man he hired to care for his lawn died when he was away. Ficken's own mower broke when he tried to use it upon his return. The grass kept growing.

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  • Then came the fine: Ficken says the first he heard of the looming bill was on Aug. 20, when a code enforcement official on his daily rounds warned Ficken about a "big bill." Ficken immediately bought a new mower and cut the grass on Aug. 21. He was ordered to appear at a Sept. 4 hearing but was again out of state dealing with estate issues. The Code Enforcement Board met and upheld the fine—which grew larger during that last trip out of town. Fox 13 reports there were 57 days of violations.
  • Perspective: The total fine was $29,833.50. The county appraised his home at 1341 Lady Marion Lane at $125,541.
  • Ficken's standout quote: Per WFTS: "That's about five or six years of living expenses for me. So, they’re really trying to take five years of my life."
  • Dunedin's perspective: The city tells WTSP the violations actually date to 2007, and that Ficken was told in person by an inspector at the beginning of July that the fine was $500 a day. But Business Insider notes Ficken's suit says the fines came "without warning."
  • His suit: Ficken turned to the property-rights-focused Institute for Justice, which garnered press this February for winning a Supreme Court fight. They're taking on his case pro bono. The Washington Post reports the suit revolves around the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines and argues the fine is exactly that considering the offense and that the city did not take into account the retiree's ability to pay (the Post points out Ficken is on food stamps). He's seeking $1 in nominal damages, attorney's fees, and injunctions that would wipe away the fines.
  • Dunedin's fee collection: While Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski told the Tampa Bay Times, "We are not interested in making money on the backs of our citizens," the paper notes the money the city has made from code violations has exploded from $34,000 in 2007 to $1.3 million last year.
(A single mom was thrown in jail over her lawn.)

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