Missouri

Turf war: Court says Missouri couple must plant grass, even though wife is allergic

Janice and Carl Duffner's yard in St. Peters, Mo., is planted with flowers because she is allergic to grass.
Janice and Carl Duffner's yard in St. Peters, Mo., is planted with flowers because she is allergic to grass. Raycom News Network

A Missouri couple decided to turn their entire yard into a flower garden.

It turns out, that was against a city ordinance, which says half of residents' yards must be grass turf.

But the wife is allergic to grass.

Now a federal judge has ruled: tough.

So Janice and Carl Duffner are vowing to fight on.

Their city of St. Peters, near St. Louis, put the Duffners on notice that they must comply with the law.

The Duffners said at the time they filed their civil rights action in late 2016 they were subject to penalties of $180,000 and 20 years in jail for non-compliance.

"If the city is permitted to impose draconian fines and imprisonment simply because a citizen chooses to cultivate on their own private property 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.

The Duffners bought their home in 2002 and began landscaping that included planting beds, two small ponds, pathways and seating areas. The St. Peters Board of Aldermen adopted the turf ordinance in 2008. At some point, an unidentified person complained to the city that the Duffners had no grass.

The Duffners asked for an exemption but were denied. Instead, the Board of Adjustment in 2014 told them to plant at least 5 percent of their property with grass. They refused.

In its response to the federal complaint, the city noted that the Duffners had first gone to circuit court in St. Charles County and had lost there because they had failed to exhaust their administrative remedies. After a mixed ruling from the Missouri Court of Appeals, the Duffners turned to federal court.

U.S. District Judge John A. Ross last week ruled for the city, saying the Duffners "have failed to identify a fundamental right that is restricted by the Turf Grass Ordinance." The judge said the Supreme Court has held that "aesthetic considerations constitute a legitimate government purpose."

Ross also said the Duffners failed to demonstrate that the penalties for violating the turf ordinance are excessive and contrary to the Eighth Amendment.

The Duffners' attorney, David Roland of the Freedom Center of Missouri, told the Riverfront Times that the couple will appeal.

"My estimation is that this is one of the most important property rights cases in the country right now," he said. "We're going to go all hands on deck."

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