Sophia Jennings was motoring down Carney's Ridgely Avenue this month in her blue pickup, on her way to investigate a complaint of a code violation, when she noticed the tall grass and tangled weeds.
In the midst of a neighborhood of mostly manicured lawns, the several-feet-high brush surrounding a boarded-up house stuck out - so much so that the Baltimore County code enforcement officer took note of the address and filed a complaint.
"I just looked and thought, `Yuck,'" she said.
She's not alone. Overgrown lawns are one of summer's bigger nuisances, sparking a passel of resident complaints to various city and county agencies across the area who come equipped with the authority to order homeowners to trim their lawns - or pay the high price of letting the government do it for them. In most area jurisdictions, letting grass grow more than a foot high - or 8 inches in Baltimore City - is against the law.
In some jurisdictions, the grass "cops" come in the form of code enforcement officers. In others, public works officials or environmental health workers are assigned to the task.
"We actually have a grass ruler," said Tommie Houck, chief of zoning enforcement for Harford County.
The number of complaints varies by county, from dozens a month for the smaller jurisdictions to dozens a day for places as large as Baltimore City and Baltimore County. So does the process that follows the complaint, although each county uses some form of notification process and time for landowners to comply with the law.
And in Howard County, only rental properties are covered by the county's law governing grass trims, said Bob Frances, acting director of inspections, licenses and permits. Those who complain about owner-occupied land are referred to any homeowners association that might govern the property, he said.
However, officials say the goal is the same everywhere: for property owners to cut back the grass and weeds cluttering their land.
While most eventually do, for those who don't, officials in Baltimore City and several counties said they step in and do the landscaping themselves, sending out government crews or contractors to slice through weeds and grass that have grown several feet high.
Not only are overgrown weeds and grass a nuisance, officials say, but they also can become breeding grounds for insects and rats. "In some regards, it's a health issue," said Todd Fiedorowicz, a program manager in Anne Arundel County's public works department. "And in neighborhoods, it's unsightly."
The cost of the cut, which can run into the hundreds of dollars, is passed on to the property owner through a bill or a lien attached to the property, officials said. Houck said some have been charged as much as $500 in Harford. In Baltimore County, owners are assessed a mobilization fee of at least $80 and a $75 administrative fee on top of the cost of the landscaping work, said Gary Freund, a county code enforcement coordinator.
Each year, the county ends up cutting back the grass and weeds on several of the same properties, he said.
"You have to ask yourself if an absentee owner is just letting the county do his property maintenance. They can hire a grass-cutting guy," he said, "or just ignore it and wait until the county comes two or three times a season."
Along Dumbarton Road in Rodgers Forge, neighbors have complained to county officials about a variety of problems - including tall grass and weeds - with a vacant rowhouse in the 400 block.
Last year, the lawn was cut on a fairly regular basis, said neighbor Kelly Lykens. This year, the Lykens family, and the Oakjones family on the other side of the house, say they have taken turns trimming the front.
"The front looks presentable, so when somebody walks up to your home, they don't look and say, `Oh, my God,'" said Kathe Oakjones.
The backyard has been cut once this year, according to neighbors. Baltimore County officials said they sent a contractor to the property in June at a cost of $174.80 plus the $75 administrative fee - an amount that officials say will be passed on to the owners through a tax lien.
By earlier this month, the grass had again grown higher than the legal 12-inch limit, and Jennings had taped a yellow "correction notice" to the garage on the property.
"If you own a piece of property, it's yours," she said, "but we can still make [you] do things with it, like cut the grass and clean up the trash."