RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Richmond residents are speaking out after being fined by the city for violating environmental laws.
Sara Sawyers and her partner Chris Steckline live together in Sawyer’s home in Richmond. The couple said they received a notice last week alerting them to environmental law violations, which cited weeds over 12 inches and bamboo on the property. But the notice also said Sawyers would be fined $50 as a civil penalty without prior warning or direction to appeal.
“We were out running errands and when we got home there was a note taped to my front door saying there was a breach of the code that I had failed to comply with and I was given 48 hours to sort it out cleaning up the grounds,” Sawyers said. “We spent the day doing a lot of gardening and weeding.”
Sawyers said that she and Steckline dug up the bamboo shoots growing in their yard, which she said existed there, before she bought the house, only to realize they were fined for violating Richmond City ordinances whether or not it was addressed to those concerned who were quoted by the person who inspected their property.
“We have been made aware that the notice was not a warning. It has already been escalated to a $50 civil penalty, with the potential to go even higher to $250 if left unaddressed,” Sawyers said. “Once we realized that bamboo is an invasive species, we were unclear if — how to avoid this penalty with an invasive species that takes time, chemicals and professionals to remove.”
Sawyers and Steckline said they were even more worried about their neighbor, who was also subpoenaed for an environmental violation. They noticed that the neighbor had bamboo growth beyond what they had in their garden and that it would be even more difficult for them to remove because the bamboo was also covered in poison ivy.
“None of this came with a pre-fine notification,” said Steckline. “There was tall grass out there and that was part of what was against the ordinances. So we cleaned everything up. It was a bit high, but we weeded everything, mowed everything. Now it looks beautiful. We dug up this bamboo.”
Sawyers and Steckline said they were particularly puzzled by the notice of violation posted on the front door because it stated the problem was the bamboo, even though the plant was not specifically named in the city ordinance.
However, what the Code of Ordinances (Sec. 11-105. – Weeds and other vegetation) expressly states is that environmental violations of this type carry a civil penalty not to exceed $50 for the first violation.
The civil penalty for subsequent violations not arising from the same relevant facts within 12 months of the first violation shall not exceed $200.00. In no event shall a series of specific violations arising out of the same set of operational facts result in civil penalties in excess of an aggregate amount of $3,000.00 in any 12 month period. If, within the previous 24 months, three civil penalties have been imposed on the same defendant for the same or similar violations that do not arise from the same relevant facts, then such violations are a Class 3 misdemeanor that shall not also be classified as a civil penalty.”
Ordinance Code (§§ 11-105. – Weeds and other plants)
“It’s extremely frustrating to know that a few bamboo shoots — even if it’s an entire bamboo forest — are a problem for the city,” Sawyers said. “Now I have a hail of bullets in my house from the violence across the street. My car was broken into. I had to set up surveillance cameras.”
The Richmond Police Department (RPD) confirmed to 8News that on February 17, 2021, there was a report of gunfire at an occupied vehicle on the Richmond Henrico Turnpike near Sawyer’s home. More than a year later, as of Wednesday, a bullet hole was still visible on the Sawyers’ home.
“It feels predatory from the city. It’s frustrating that bamboo is the problem here when I have a bullet hole in my house,” Sawyers said. “I just hope the city changes this ordinance code to allow a time to appropriately remove an invasive species.”
8News contacted the City of Richmond’s Department of Planning and Development Review on Wednesday. director dr Kevin Vonck said that when cared for properly, bamboo can be used as a natural screen between properties.
“It is an invasive weed, however, and we will quote a property owner if it grows approximately twelve (12) inches outside of the property it was intended to be growing on,” he wrote in a statement. “The civil penalty of fifty dollars ($50.00) for the first violation is a requirement of Section 11-105(e) City Code, which applies regardless of the reduction.”