A small city near Tampa has cracked down on property owners who violate laws and regulations designed to “protect the integrity of neighborhoods and quality of the community.” The laws can regulate everything from how long a property owner’s grass can grow to when and what type of vehicle can be parked in the driveway or on the neighborhood street.

A recent example involves a property owner who received a bill for over $100,000 from the city. The property owner ignored the letter, thinking it was a scam. The city sued to collect. In the lawsuit, the city claimed the property owner had failed to maintain the grass and pool within her property. This led to “overgrown vegetation” and a “stagnant” pool.

Is this common?

This city has pushed to collect on fines for similar violations on a regular basis. In just over five years, the city has collected more than $3 million in fines for violations that include allowing grass to grow over 10 inches in length and having bricks or siding that does not match.

This city is not alone. State and local government authorities throughout Florida have increased the amounts collected through these types of fines from 2006 through 2016 by over 100%.

Is this legal?

The issue is such a problem that it has made it to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). In its holding, SCOTUS explained that states could not impose “excessive fines.” Although a big win for property owners, the highest court in the country failed to explain what constituted an excessive fine.

What does this mean for homeowners?

This issue presents two problems for homeowners:

  1. Fines. The homeowner can find themselves facing unmanageable fines, as noted in the case above.
  2. Liens. The fines can also result on a lien on the property, potentially hindering the title of the property.

This highlights the importance of a thorough title search prior to purchasing a property as it is possible a new homeowner could find themselves party to a lawsuit for fines on the property that accumulated before they became owners.