Birmingham City Council

City Calls on Neighbors to Cut Overgrown Lots so City Can Concentrate on Parks

Sue Cline via Flickr under CC BY 2.0

The city of Birmingham is shifting its strategy for dealing with overgrown private lots, encouraging landowners and neighbors to take more responsibility instead of relying on the city to address the problem.

“The city of Birmingham is not responsible for cutting private property,” Mayor Randall Woodfin told councilors Tuesday. “It is the responsibility of the owner of that private property … . We’ll continue to cut as many as possible, but I believe the public deserves the hard truth: there (are) not enough public tax dollars to cut every private lot, and we probably can’t get to your neighbor’s private lot more than once in a fiscal year.”

While the city seeks a “better way,” the mayor encouraged neighborhoods to collectively address overgrown lots themselves. “If it’s left to the city, we will never be able to satisfy the public or the next-door neighbor,” he said, noting that grass often grows faster than the city’s legal process for declaring private lots a public nuisance.

“I think we got into the habit of trying to solve for something that is not solvable with public dollars or public manpower,” he said.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin speaks to the City Council, 1/31/23 (Source: Council Facebook livestream)

Woodfin encouraged neighborhoods instead to organize and cut the lots themselves. “We are starting a ‘Pride Where I Reside’ campaign and an ‘Adopt Your Block’ campaign and look forward to providing more detail for what that looks like,” Woodfin said. “But I can tell you it probably will not include us sending out the police if neighbors as a collective group decide to enter private property and cut it. Now, I can’t believe I said that out loud, but I did.”

Overgrown lots have been a key part of Woodfin’s focus on neighborhood revitalization since he took office in 2017, though he noted after a year in office that the city “can’t be in the grass-cutting business forever.”

While his proposed FY 2024 budget increases funding for weed abatement from $1.5 million to $2 million, Woodfin emphasized that the city’s priority would be maintenance of city-owned rights-of-way and parks, with only leftover funds going toward cutting private lots.

The city’s strategy for privately owned overgrown lots will instead focus on “public shaming” of irresponsible or absentee property owners, Woodfin said, “because I guarantee you where they live it does not look like that.”

Birmingham City Councilor Carol Clarke

Several councilors said they were receptive to this new approach. District 8 Councilor Carol Clarke agreed that “we cannot maintain a reasonable service level with the volume of vacant lots across the city” and added that, even after the city cuts grass on those lots, “two weeks later it’s like we were never there.”

But, she said, she wanted the shift in priority to be reflected in the quality of city-owned parks: “I hope that we will see in lieu of (cutting private lots) our parks being manicured to a really high level, more than we’ve been able to do in the past, and that the public realm will be spotless and sparkling as a trade-off for the citizens so that we can say, ‘But look how well we’re maintaining the public property now that we’re not burdened.’”

“I know people will be disappointed,” she said, “but they were disappointed anyway.”