It was the wildflowers vs. the lawn mowers at Monday night's County Council hearing, and the flowers weren't shrinking violets.

"Lawns basically are environmental deserts," treated with chemicals and devoid of wildlife, testified Ken Hart of Woodbine, former president of the Audubon Society of Maryland.

Hart was one of 20 people who testified on Councilwoman Angela Beltram's bill to limit the height of private lawns to 1 foot. Hart said the bill would set back environmentalists' efforts to encourage people to let their lawns grow into habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Beltram, D-2nd District, introduced the bill Sept. 4 in response to constituents' complaints about overgrown lawns in Ellicott City, often on absentee owners' property. Property owners in violation could be fined as much as $50 a day and have to pay the county to cut the grass to 3 inches high.

Most who testified opposed the bill, including Diana Healy of Clarksville, who came armed with a vase full of daisies.

"I think it's ambiguous," she said.

That belief was voiced by many who testified, including county Public Works Director James Irvin.

Healy said she was worried that the county could be brought in by neighbors' complaints to mow her half-acre wildflower meadow, which has become a home for goldfinches, the official Howard County bird.

The bill contains several exemptions, including farmland, wooded areas, unimproved lots of more than three acres, natural recreational areas, wetlands and bird and game sanctuaries.

Before the hearing, Beltram introduced an amendment adding "private areas specifically managed as wildlife habitat," "buffer areas along streams" and "wet meadows" to the exemptions.

Proponents of the bill testified that unchecked overgrowth lowers their property values, makes for unsafe walking at night and provides a breeding ground for insects.

Irvin testified that many of the exemptions needed better definitions, or the law would be difficult to enforce. He offered to help Beltram clarify them.

Hart said other jurisdictions around the country have lawn laws that do not infringe on wildlife habitats, and he agreed to provide Beltram with examples.

County Environmental Health Director Frank Skinner testified that his staff has received about 100 grass and weed complaints in the last year. He said the staff investigated 35 complaints and had the authority to act on none, because they were "not a public health condition."

The County Council is scheduled to vote on the weed and grass control bill, along with a bill to limit annual property tax assessment increases to 5 percent, at its Oct. 1 legislative session.

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