Overgrown, overwhelmed

WARREN – Joseph S. Panak has been cutting grass at abandoned properties next to his mother’s and behind his sister’s homes on Stewart Drive N.W. and on Northwest Boulevard for the last two years.

Panak has been doing this and picking up trash around the homes because the family does not want the properties to become eyesores that will bring down the value of their own homes.

“Up until two years ago, these homes were occupied by their owners,” said Anna Jones, who lives next door to the 2114 Stewart Drive property and whose back yard is against the Northwest Boulevard home. “For whatever reasons, the owners walked away from them.”

Tree limbs have fallen on the rear 6-foot-high wooden fence of the Northwest Boulevard home, and at different times during this year, the grasses have grown 2 to 3 feet tall. Initially, Panak attempted to prop up the fence, but eventually he and a neighbor worked together to move two panels over to the side.

“I cut the front and side yard grass at the house next to my mother’s home every time I cut her grass,” he said. “I do the back yard once or twice a month, just to keep it down.”

Jones, Panak’s sister, worries about her brother doing this work because he recently was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and should be more concerned about his recovery than with neighborhood blight.

“We don’t mind helping, but I don’t feel there has been much effort by the city to take care of this problem,” she said. “Residents should not be placed in positions where they have to cut grass in abandoned yards. The city needs to do something about these homes.”

Marilene Dawson, 2306 Willow Drive S.W., wonders when the city will tear down an empty house next to hers and several others on her street.

“Something has to be done,” Dawson said. “People have been throwing tires, toilets and garbage in the yard. It needs to be torn down.

“The grasses are about 3 feet high,” she said. “I have health problems. There are smells from the yard like something is in there dead. I have asthma and an auto-immune disease and it bothers me.”

Dawson says she has young grandchildren who ride their bikes in the area and are afraid to ride by the house because of the threat of an animal coming out of the tall grasses.

“I’ve been here about seven months, and it has never been cut,” she said.

Dawson was one of about a half dozen people who voiced their concerns Wednesday before Warren City Council.

There are several unkempt, abandoned houses on the street that have high grasses that sit next to occupied homes whose owners are trying to take care of the properties.

Josie Freeman told council that the vacant house next to her mother’s home at 2042 Saratoga has grass that is several feet high. Raccoons have made the house their home.

“My mom has a beautiful yard and it is one of the prettiest homes in the area,” Freeman said. “We watch raccoons walking through the neighbor’s yard. They had been entering the house through an open basement window, before another neighbor bricked up that window. Now they are going through a hole in the roof. It is very dangerous.

“My worry is the raccoons may have rabies,” Freeman said. “There are 11 of us, so my mother’s grandchildren are over her house all of the time. I am afraid someone may get hurt.”

Freeman, who lives on Ferndale Avenue, says the problem with high grasses also is in her neighborhood.

“We have some neighbors who cut the grasses at empty homes so they don’t look so bad,” she said.

Councilwoman Cheryl Saffold, D-6th Ward, questioned whether the city has a formalized grass cutting program and schedule that may be shared with residents.

Warren Mayor Doug Franklin met with some residents after Wednesday night’s council meeting and told them the administration is doing what it can to get on top of the problem of high grass and would prioritize their complaints.

Several of the residents, including Freeman, seemed satisfied with that response and are willing to give the city time to address the problem.

“This time of year we receive a high volume of high grass complaints,” Franklin said. “We are using all of our resources to take care of the problem. Our initial goal is to take care of the high grasses on the corners that block the view of traffic.”

The problem of vacant lots is not going to get any easier. Over the next six months, the city will tear down several hundred dilapitated properties creating more vacant lots that will have to be taken care of in future years.

Franklin is encouraging homeowners to consider buying the vacant lots next to their homes to expand their properties.

“Many homeowners are taking care of the properties anyway, so they might as well purchase them,” he said.

Franklin said the city also uses the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office program that sends inmates across the county to cut high grass areas around the city.

The sheriff’s office so far this summer has cut the nearly 1,000 properties in more than a dozen Trumbull County communities, according to Donald Guarino, chief of operations at the department. The department has cut about 450 empty lots and senior citizen homes in Warren.

“We have been cutting more properties in Warren than we’ve ever had to do,” Guarino said. “It is because there are so many vacant lots in the city.”

The inmate program was created by Sheriff Thomas Altiere in 2007. It uses inmates who are charged with non-violent crimes – and have no history of escape – who volunteer to cut grass and clean up areas of trash and tires. Each of the prisoners that participate are approved by a judge.

“It gives them opportunities to get out of the jail during the day,” Guarino said.

Since the program began, it has saved the Trumbull communities about $1.73 million, according to Guarino. It has saved Warren an estimated $1.1 million

The sheriff’s office and the Trumbull County commissioners are providing the program at no cost to the participating communities.

Those areas participating in the inmate grass cutting and cleanup programs include Fowler, Bazetta, Johnston, Brookfield, Hartford, Vienna, Newton Township, Southington, Warren Township, McDonald, Liberty and Niles.

Earlier this year, Warren Councilman Alford Novak, D-2nd Ward, provided the funds for the department to purchase a larger brushhog to cut some of the lots in the city. Novak said the council last year placed an additional $10,000 in the city’s grass cutting budget

“This has been a tough season,” Novak, who annually donates many hours himself to cutting grasses around his ward, said.

“I have five places I cut myself to make sure they are maintained. I’ve gone to some places that I cut a week before and it seems like I hadn’t been there at all. With all of this rain and the intermittent days of sunshine and heat, it seems the grasses are growing more quickly than in past years.”