Court upholds $30K in fines to Florida man over tall grass

DUNEDIN, Fla. — A federal court decision was a kick in the grass for a Florida resident.

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A Dunedin man who piled up $30,000 in code violation fines for letting his grass get too high will have to pay, a judge in the Middle District of Florida ruled Monday.

Jim Ficken, 71, sued the city of Dunedin in May 2019 after the city agreed to foreclose on his home, the Tampa Bay Times reported, citing court records.

Ficken and his attorneys argued that the city’s fines were excessive and were handed out with no notice, the newspaper reported.

At one point, Dunedin fined Ficken $500 a day after his grass grew taller than 10 inches during the summer of 2018.

“The city’s behavior toward Jim is outrageous,” Ari Bargil, Ficken’s attorney, said in a statement. “This ruling emboldens code enforcement departments across the state to impose crippling financial penalties and it empowers them to do so without first notifying a property owner that they are potentially going to be fined.”

Ficken said he received his first fine in 2018 while he was out of town and was unable to mow his grass, WFTS reported.

Ficken said he left the area for two weeks in July 2018 to manage his mother’s estate, the Times reported. The man who was mowing his lawn, Russ Kellum, died during that time, according to court documents. Ficken alleges that when he returned and attempted to mow his yard, his mower broke.

After Ficken sued and sought $1 in damages and relief from fines, a lower court ruled he did not have to pay, WFTS reported. Monday’s decision reversed that ruling.

“If $30,000 for tall grass in Florida is not excessive, it is hard to imagine what is,” Bargil said Tuesday. “Yesterday’s ruling is wrong on the law, and we will be appealing.”

Ficken said during a 2019 news conference that he did not realize he owed the city money. When the bill from the city arrived, it totaled $29,833.50, the Times reported He was ordered to attend a hearing with the Code Enforcement Board in August 2019 but missed it because he was in South Carolina to manage another issue with his mother’s estate, the newspaper reported.

The board met without him on Sept. 4. 2019, and ruled that the fine would stand.

In a statement, the City of Dunedin said it “has undertaken a thorough and careful analysis and review of its code enforcement policies and procedures.”

“The current policies reflect modifications emphasizing compliance over enforcement. The Federal District Court has issued a thorough and detailed judgment endorsing the City’s legal defenses to Mr. Ficken’s case,” the statement read. “The Federal District Court’s order held the City did not violate Mr. Ficken’s state or federal constitutional right to due process or impose unlawful fines. This is consistent with the legal findings before the City’s Code Enforcement Board, the only other body which has issued an order in this case.”

Ficken said he would appeal the ruling.

“What happened to me is wrong and I will continue to fight,” Ficken told the Times.