June 07, 2007
When lawns get out of hand

Stories like this just make me shake my head.

Linda A. Ballew spent four nights in the Harris County Jail for ignoring court orders related to a long-running dispute about her overgrown lawn before she finally agreed to cut the grass Tuesday.

Her next-door neighbor David Carroll -- who also is president of the homeowners association board -- is waiting to see whether she makes good on her promise.

Neighborhood spats are common, but there was nothing typical about this three-year battle, which has reached almost absurd proportions in the Kirkwood South subdivision.

The 50-year-old widow has lived for 14 years in her home in the 10400 block of Glenkirk. But her overgrown yard and the varmints that call it home drew the ire of the Kirkmont Association's board of directors.

Ballew, who has an 18-year-old son, cut her front lawn when the group took the dispute to court to force her to comply with the neighborhood's deed restrictions. But her backyard, surrounded by a fence, has remained largely unchanged.

Carroll, who likens Ballew's backyard to a "jungle" of grass ranging from 4 feet to 9 feet tall, says the excessive growth has caused him considerable problems.

"We've had nutria rats -- the ones that look like beavers -- caught in the trap in my backyard," Carroll said. "I have had run-ins with large snakes. My dog has been sprayed by a skunk. ... My children are not allowed to walk the property unless I go out there first.

"Anytime you try to entertain with friends, you have to explain why there is a jungle next door creeping through the fence. ... It's just the craziest thing."

There was a house in our neighborhood that was similar to this, though not as bad. The owner spent most of the year out of town, and things got out of hand. I've heard from folks who lived on one side or the other of that house that rats were a real problem. It's easy to complain about homeowners associations and the power they have, but in a situation like that, it's hard not to sympathize with them.

(The house that was our urban wildlife refuge was recently bought and torn down, by the way. Much better for all involved.)

Sympathizing with the defendant in this case is a taller order.

The Kirkmont Association first sued Ballew and won a permanent injunction against her in 2004, requiring her to mow her entire lawn twice a month and trim her trees and shrubs once a year. Ballew failed to appear in court at that time to respond to the lawsuit, which resulted in a default judgment.

But little has changed since then, Carroll said. Only the front yard has been mowed.

During a follow-up hearing in April 2006, Ballew was found to be in contempt of court for failing to comply with the injunction. She was sentenced to three days in jail, but that sentence was suspended for four months to give her time to do the required yard work, homeowners association attorney Michael Treece said.

She was ordered to return to Davidson's court for a compliance hearing in August but failed to appear.

Davidson issued an order for Ballew's arrest last fall. She was taken into custody Friday. The judge told Ballew he sought her arrest "very reluctantly."

I'd say the judge has been more than patient. Nobody likes to see this sort of thing end up in court, but once it does, that really ought to be the end of it. Maybe now it finally will be.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 07, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

People have a responsibility to their neighbors if they are going to live in a subdivision type setting. When health issues arise due to a neighbor's negligence, all bets are off and I think the judge and the HOA did the right thing. If nothing is remedied she needs to return and continue a longer jail sentence until something clicks. Its sad that you can't shame people into behaving like civilized people these days.

Posted by: TAN on June 7, 2007 10:10 AM