RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Richmond residents are speaking out after being fined by the city for violating the environmental code.

Sara Sawyers and her partner Chris Steckline, live together in Sawyers’ Richmond home. The couple said they received a notice last week alerting them to environmental code violations, which cited weeds above 12″ and bamboo on the property. But the notice also stated that Sawyers would be fined $50 as a civil penalty, without a prior warning or instructions to appeal.

“We were out running errands and came home to a notice taped to my front door, stating that there was a code violation that I was non-compliant with, and I was given 48 hours to clean up the premise,” Sawyers said. “We spent the day doing a lot of yard work, cleaning up some weeds.”

Sawyers said that she and Steckline dug up the shoots of bamboo growing in her yard, which she said existed there before she bought the home, only to realize that she would be fined for violating the City of Richmond’s Code of Ordinances, regardless of whether she addressed the concerned cited by the individual who inspected her property.

“It was brought to our attention that the notice was not a warning. It was already escalated to a civil penalty of $50, with the potential of going up even higher to $250 if gone unaddressed,” Sawyers said. “Realizing that bamboo is an invasive species, we were unclear if — how we were supposed to avoid this penalty, with an invasive species that requires time, chemicals, professionals to remove.”

Photo of Bamboo (Photo: Olivia Jaquith 8News)

Sawyers and Steckline said they were even more concerned about their next-door neighbor, who was also cited for an environmental violation. They noted that the neighbor had bamboo growth beyond what they had in their yard, and that it would be even more difficult for her to remove it because the bamboo was also covered in poison ivy.

“None of this came with any notice prior to being fined,” Steckline said. “There were high grasses out there, and that’s part of what was in violation of the ordinances. So we cleaned everything up. It was a little bit high, but we weed-whacked everything, mowed everything. Now, it looks beautiful. We dug up that bamboo.”

Sawyers and Steckline said they were particularly confused by the violation notice left on the front door because it specified the problem was the bamboo, despite the fact that the plant is not explicitly named in the City’s Code of Ordinances.

However, what is explicit in the Code of Ordinances (Sec. 11-105. – Weeds and other vegetation) is that environmental violations of this nature will be subject to a civil penalty, not to exceed $50 for the first violation.

The civil penalty for subsequent violations not arising from the same set of operative facts within 12 months of the first violation shall not exceed $200.00. In no event shall a series of specified violations arising from the same set of operative facts result in civil penalties that exceed a total of $3,000.00 in a 12-month period. In the event three civil penalties have previously been imposed on the same defendant for the same or similar violations, not arising from the same set of operative facts, within a 24-month period, then such violations shall be a Class 3 misdemeanor, which shall not also be classified as a civil penalty.”

Code of Ordinances (Sec. 11-105. – Weeds and other vegetation)

“It’s extremely frustrating to know that a couple bamboo shoots — even if it’s a whole forest of bamboo — is an issue to the City,” Sawyers said. “Meanwhile I have a bullet hole in my house from violence across the street. I’ve had my car broken into. I’ve had to put up security cameras.”

The Richmond Police Department (RPD) confirmed to 8News that, on Feb. 17, 2021, a report was made of shots being fired at an occupied vehicle on Richmond Henrico Turnpike, in the vicinity of Sawyers’ home. More than a year later, on Wednesday, a bullet hole was still visible on Sawyers’ house.

“It feels predatory by the City. It feels frustrating to have bamboo be the issue here when I have a bullet hole in my house,” Sawyers said. “I just hope that the City changes this Code of Ordinances to allow for a time to appropriately remove a species that is invasive.”

8News reached out to the City of Richmond’s Department of Planning and Development Review on Wednesday. Director Dr. Kevin Vonck said, when maintained properly, bamboo may be used as a natural screening between properties.

“It is, however, an invasive weed, and we will cite a property owner when it grows about twelve (12) inches outside of the property where it was intended to grow,” he wrote in a statement. “The fifty dollar ($50.00) civil penalty for first offense is a requirement of §11-105(e) City Code, which is levied regardless of abatement.”