A Florida Retiree's Uncut Lawn May Cost Him His House

Jim Ficken was fined $29,000 for violations of his town's tall grass ordinance.


The city of Dunedin, Florida, really wants Jim Ficken's house. Last year, the 69-year-old retiree left town to attend to his dying mother and then to sort out her estate. While he was away, he left a handyman in charge of his property. In a Shakespearean twist, the handyman also died, leaving Ficken's lawn unmowed and the municipality perturbed.

Ficken returned home, learned that he was in violation of Dunedin's tall grass ordinance, and mowed his lawn two days later. The city then held a hearing at which it decided to retroactively fine Ficken for each day that his grass had exceeded 10 inches in height. Because he had let his grass grow too tall once before, in 2015, Dunedin deemed him a "repeat violator" and doubled his daily fine from $250 to $500. The total damage: over $29,000.

Ficken, who is on a fixed income, can't pay the city. In a sane world, his explanation for neglecting the lawn and the fact he remedied the problem promptly upon being informed of it by a code inspector would settle the matter. But Dunedin, a picturesque beach town on Florida's Gulf Coast, has threatened to foreclose on Ficken's home to get the money it claims it is owed. Ficken, who is being represented by the Institute for Justice (I.J.), is now suing the city in order to protect his house and end the saga.

In his lawsuit, filed in May, Ficken argues that Dunedin's practice of imposing such large fines with such extreme consequences, "without providing…notice before applying such classification" and without "advising…of the consequences of such a classification…violates the Due Process Clauses of both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions."

The city, which sought to have the lawsuit tossed by the Florida Circuit Court for the 6th Judicial District, says Ficken received all the due process he was owed. Dunedin informed him of a hearing where his case would be discussed, and in which the doubled "repeat violator" fines were retroactively imposed.

A filing from Ficken's lawyers counters that Dunedin officials were "repeatedly advised that Jim would not be able to attend the hearing," yet "the City went forward anyway." According to I.J., "this 'process' was one in which Jim was not permitted to participate," and "when he sought a rehearing, his request was rejected." Ficken adds that he was never informed of his status as a "repeat violator" or told what such a designation would mean for his case.

Since no statutory cap exists on the total amount in fines that can be levied for petty violations, Ficken believes the city's threats also violate the Excessive Fines Clauses of the U.S. and Florida constitutions. Taking someone's house for having overly tall grass for a few weeks seems, on its face, excessive and unreasonable.

Dunedin, naturally, disagrees, insisting the question of excessiveness must be based on the daily fine, not on whatever heights it might reach. The city cites a number of other Florida cases that seem to support that conclusion.

Ficken's lawyers noted in a reply that the cases Dunedin cites are legally unpublished and thus lack precedential power. They also involve daily fines substantially less than Ficken's $500 a day and also involve noncompliance far more intentional and long-lasting.

Finally, Ficken's fines had no connection with any legitimate city purpose to force compliance, as Ficken had already cut his grass before the hearing at which they were imposed.

It appears that Dunedin has resorted to such tactics in order to raise revenue. From 2007 to 2017, Dunedin's take from code enforcement fines increased nearly twentyfold, from $34,000 per year to $703,000. The city can pay its employees' salaries out of such cash, giving them a motive to act punitively. The city had the option, while Ficken was out of town, to mow his lawn and bill him for the service. It instead chose the path leading to the attempt to seize his home.

"A fine of $30,000 and the loss of one's home are excessive because they are both unreasonably harsh and so oppressive as to shock the conscience of reasonable men," the I.J. lawyers wrote, riffing off language in an earlier case. The consciences of these city officials in Dunedin, though, seem defective.

NEXT: Brickbat: Who Says Romance Is Dead?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. He’s a 69 year old retiree whose mother has just died, he’s probably had a good life, you’re threatening to take his house, he’s got nothing else to lose. You want to be careful about threatening men such as this. The headlines will of course speak of somebody who just suddenly snapped for no apparent reason and David Hogg will show up at the memorial service pushing his “something must be done” message, but some of us will know the truth.

    1. Killdozer- Granby, Colorado, 2004

      Sometimes citizens fight back.

      1. You’re thinking bigger than I was. I was going to suggest just blowing up City Hall.

    2. I am making $92 an hour working from home. i was greatly surprised at the same time as my neighbour advised me she changed into averaging $ninety five however I see the way it works now.I experience masses freedom now that i’m my non-public boss. that is what I do……>

  2. God bless the IJ

    1. Here here. Wanna guess where the money I used to give Reason goes now?

    2. Indeed. I am gonna donate them some money. I hope others do as well.

  3. The greed of municipalities never ceases to amaze me. Nor the excuses of those in charge at the time give as to why they need to levy such excessive fines and file court cases to take the property they feel they deserve to have to pay the unreasonable fines they have levied.

    1. Ephesians 6:12-13 King James Version (KJV)

      12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

      13 Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

  4. These stories are just Dunedin’s way of trying to keep New Yorkers from retiring down here and bringing their socialist ideas with them.

    Florida definition of happiness: 10,000 Canadians running north with a yankee under each arm.

  5. And I am sure the house is worth far more that the fine. These people have no shame.

  6. “Taking someone’s house for having overly tall grass for a few weeks seems, on its face, excessive and unreasonable.”

    Not according to Progtard Donks. Subjects must keep the fiefdom presentable.

    How can this happen when SpaceGhost lives there?

  7. You know lawn equipment seems to emit alot of CO2. I’m not sure if we’re fining the right people 😉

  8. Boomers gonna boomer. Nothing a boomer loves more than their property values, even more than their own kids.

  9. Government should never be able to foreclose on your homesteaded residence to pay back taxes or fines.

    They need to get a lien on the property like everyone else who has a claim against title. When that property is sold, the lien must be paid.

    This would end the IRS selling Grandma’s house to pay $50,000 in back taxes that she couldn’t pay because she was living on cat food.

    1. This is a very good idea and I endorse it wholeheartedly.

    2. My wholehearted support. Government at all levels has been confiscating personal property for more and more reasons. Europe during the monarchies operated on the same premise. All property belonged to the King therefore whatever you think you own you don’t. Any confiscation of property by the any level of government should only be allowed by a jury trial if asked for by the owner where the government must pay for all costs plus an penalty determined by the jury if it loses.

  10. I live here in Dunedin. There is a lot more to the story which makes the owner a less sympathetic case, but hopefully all the negative attention and local backlash will cause them to change how they do business. The local governance does seem pretty responsive when people here get behind an issue. A fun note, somebody on a local message board posted pictures of code violations at the mayor’s house. The extreme code enforcement seems less about money here and more of a futile attempt at preserving some notion folks have about the character and “vibe” of the city. The growth has really scared a lot of long time residents who pushed for the increased enforcement.

    1. “There is a lot more to the story which makes the owner a less sympathetic case…”

      And that is?

        1. Wow.

          That dude is special.

          For the TLDR version, this writer says that tall grass dude is a real estate investor who owns several properties. He’s had one run in with a HOA that resulted in substantial fines and threats of foreclosure before he complied, and another case where he didn’t do mandated repairs and got fined.

          So the conclusion on that part is that he is an experienced offender, having racked up a couple of offenses among his many investment properties in the last 25 years.

          And the conclusion on fines of $30,000 is that a bad neighbor can cause home values to plummet by 5%. So the town is justified in forcing scofflaws who don’t maintain their property to leave town.

    2. In San Diego, the anti-growth people are often people who aren’t from the area themselves, originally. They just moved there before the current wave of people moved in.

      I bet it sucks when you leave New Jersey for a quaint town in Florida, and, ten years later, it seems like the people you left behind in New Jersey on purpose have all moved in around you.

      Where do people who’ve moved to Florida move if they want to get away from all the people who are moving to Florida? Does Florida have a Florida?

      I’m sure Nashville and Texas have the same problem. Other places in the west are having similar issues with people coming in who are fleeing California. It’s a shock for both sides, I hear. Californians never knew how intensely disliked they were by people they considered their cultural inferiors, in places like Boise, and locals in places like Boise, who supported things like the Iraq War, never knew what it was like to be invaded by an army of Californians who’ve come to change Idaho’s way of life for the “better”.

      1. Northern Florida.

    3. “There is a lot more to the story which makes the owner a less sympathetic case…”

      Like Jerry B., I’d be interested to know the details because, quite frankly, I find it hard to imagine what extra information would justify fining someone 30 grand for unmowed grass, and taking his house when he can’t pay the fine.

      1. Link above. He has apparently been a real estate investor for some time with a history of code issues. Again, I’m not supporting the process here, just noting that this guy isn’t exactly the Mr Magoo retiree some of the stories are running with.

        1. Considering that someone found unenforced code violations in the Mayor’s home, I kinda doubt his “history of code violations” is anything serious.

          $29K and losing your home for uncut lawn is excessive, period. There is simply no justification, under any circumstances, for code enforcement to be involved in such heavy fines, unless the crime is so severe that criminal punishment and SWAT teams are the right tool.

        2. It is literally an American tradition to make it hard for government to do things. If you don’t like, you are in the wrong country.

          The fact that this guy says fuck you to local government thugs is a thing to be praised, which is why this guy is the hero and not the villain as local government assholes were hoping.

  11. I’m more sympathetic to cities for doing things like this on weed abatement in areas where one person not keeping his or her property trimmed can mean out of control fires, evacuating hundreds of thousands of people, and thousands of people’s homes burning down–which is exactly what happened in San Diego in 2007.

    In those cases, though, high fire hazard areas, where any fire can quickly spread through a valley and will endanger everyone else’s homes in the area, are on a map–just like the map FEMA uses to flag properties in flood plains. There’s no mystery about it if you live in one.

    And even in those situations, the city (or the county) will send out a weed abatement notice explaining that if your property isn’t trimmed by such and such a date, they’ll send a crew out to do it for you at a cost related to the size of your parcel.

    If the city or county does it, it’s more expensive than it would cost you to hire someone to do it for you, but 1) you can do it yourself without hiring anyone, 2) the cost to the home owner is limited to the cost of trimming the property, and 3) the purpose is to protect the property of other people from a fire hazard in a fire hazard area–it’s not to gouge a homeowner for as much money as possible.

    1. Why charge someone $500 a day when the city could send the crew that mows the lawn at the library and city hall to mow the property’s lawn for less than $1,000?

      Sounds like a racket to me.

      1. Yeah that’s where they lose me. Solve the problem don’t compound it with this weird need punish things.

        1. um, power … someone gave them power … must abuse

          1. If you read the link to the local article posted by INFORG above, it seems that at least a contingent of the town wants people who don’t get with the program to be forced out – to protect property values.

            So in his opinion, the $30k isn’t just about revenue. It is about getting rid of people who don’t do things the Dunedin way.

  12. Cancel culture never seems to come for the ones who deserve it.

  13. Hopefully, his new landscaper has access to a woodchipper, if it is ever required.

  14. In a sane world

    Well there’s your problem.

  15. are the Jornolists doxxing the Dunedin Board then?

  16. > Dunedin informed him of a hearing …

    Let me guess. The notice was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.

  17. My initial reaction to this story the first time around was to blame the government officials who are running their city like an organized crime scheme.

    But now I’m broadening that. Because it has been a while. And the same idiots are still running the place. Which means that the voters in this town are not sufficiently outraged to do something about it.

    So it is on you now, Dunedin. You are all to blame for this guy’s fate. Sorry INFORG, but that’s how representative democracy works. If “the people” think this is reasonable governance, then it’s on them.

    1. Yes, yes we are all responsible for everything our governments do in our name. An easy sentiment in theory, in reality most of us have to earn a living and take care of our family. Not much time left over for torches and pitchforks.

      I will express my displeasure at the ballot box and if a majority agrees we will get them out. If not, I will just have to keep my lawn mowed and continue to keep good relationships with my neighbors, since code enforcement is primarily driven by complaints. This will play out in the courts and am happy to see I.J. get involved.

      It is actually a pretty nice place to live. I’ve seen posts on local social media where people were short cash, had a broken mower, etc. and have yet to see less than a few people offer to come mow a lawn for free or help out other people in need.

      I purchased an older home outside of any HOA, so at least I don’t have that extra layer to deal with.

  18. Repeat after me – I will never voluntarily give up my rights and buy into a homeowner association.

  19. You think the cities are out of control. The HOA’s are even worse, they have free reign on petty violations that make this guy look like a saint. I live in the land of HOA’s in south Florida and they go after every small violation even smaller than tall grass. You can’t even park your car on the street anytime which means you can’t have house parties without getting fined. If you want to avoid an HOA don’t move to Florida, nearly every housing community has one.

    1. Pretty much everything built since the mid 80’s in Florida falls under an HOA. I bought an older renovated house to avoid one.

  20. And people wonder why people go postal. The only problem with people going postal is that there aren’t enough people doing it. Bottom line: People are no fucking good, and petty, two-bit politicians are double no fucking good.

  21. I’m no fan of the bureaucracy and over-reach of government, but it seems that Brian Doherty hasn’t reported both sides of the story. The ‘innocent’ resident it seems is actually not a resident and is a serial offender. Reason needs to be more balanced and thorough in its reporting if it is to honor its mantra of ‘being reasonable’.

  22. After the city moved to foreclose on his house, Ficken filed a counter suit against the city and the Code Enforcement Board members, asking for $1 in nominal damages, coverage for attorney fees and injunctions liteblue

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.