Federal Judge Upholds Community Aesthetics Over Health Concerns, Property Rights

Published May 21, 2018

A federal district court upheld a local ordinance requiring a Missouri couple to plant grass at their home for aesthetic reasons, despite the fact one of the homeowners is allergic to grass and it harms her health.

Janice and Carl Duffner, homeowners in St. Peters, Missouri, bought their home in 2002 and, because Mrs. Duffner is allergic to grass, overtime transformed their landscaping, planting flower beds, digging two small ponds, and putting in pathways and seating areas.

Subsequently, the St. Peters Board of Aldermen adopted a turf ordinance in 2008, requiring at least half if each resident’s yard to be made up of grass.

In 2014 someone complained about the Duffners’ lawn and the city issued them a notice saying they must comply with the law. The penalty for violating the ordinance is up to $180,000 in fines and 20 years in jail.

Lawsuit Filed

The Duffners asked for an exemption to the ordinance but St. Peters denied it, although the Board of Adjustment said it would allow them to plant just 5 percent of their property with grass in 2014.

They refused and, after receiving a mixed ruling in the Missouri Court of Appeals, filed a federal lawsuit arguing forcing them to comply with the turf ordinance violated their civil rights. The Duffners’ attorney argued such ordinances could lead to cities mandating holiday light shows or swimming pools in order to improve property values and that even if the ordinance promoted a legitimate government purpose, the penalties attached for non-compliance were excessive.

“If the city is permitted to impose draconian fines and imprisonment simply because a citizen chooses to cultivate on their own private property [with] lawful, harmless plants of their own choosing instead of a potentially harmful plant of the government’s choosing, there is no longer any principled limit to the government’s control over either the property or the owners,” the Duffners’ complaint stated.

Rights Not Fundamental

U.S. District Judge John A. Ross disagreed.

On March 28, Ross ruled for the city, writing the Duffners, “have failed to identify a fundamental right that is restricted by the Turf Grass Ordinance,” since the Supreme Court has held “aesthetic considerations constitute a legitimate government purpose.”

Ross said the Duffners’ allegations were too broad, writing if he overturned the ordinance based on the grounds they cited it could result court’s having to exercise “heightened judicial scrutiny” for a wide array of local zoning laws.

Ross also ruled the potential punishment was not excessive and thus did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment.

The Kansas City Star reports the Duffners’ attorney, David Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, told the Riverfront Times this case was among the most important property rights cases in the courts today and the couple will appeal.

“My estimation is that this is one of the most important property rights cases in the country right now,” Roland reportedly told the Riverfront Times.

 H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.