Greg Riley, 71, ambles over his brown, barren front yard gingerly. Already hunched slightly forward from time and lower back problems, he bends further, ducking beneath a low-hanging branch from the spruce tree on his yard’s southern side. There, he points toward a patch of dirt along his home’s foundation atop a hill in west Rapid City.
Wildflowers, he says, were beginning to bloom along the concrete wall earlier this summer. The sun hides behind a gray sky as the wind rips furiously. He turns, saunters to the east-facing front yard and points to a garden bed devoid of perceptible life.
Same story there.
He continues around his yard this way for a few minutes, pointing to various plots on the north and west sides of his land where native wildflowers and grasses used to sprout toward the sky, the only remnants now a smattering of dead, dry grasses matted down like a stray cat’s fur.
On July 18, Riley returned from running errands downtown to find his yard mowed and flowers gone. Days earlier, he had notified the police that his yard had likely been poisoned. Since 2007, he’s tried to share the beauty of native wildflowers with his neighbors. Now, on a blustery late October day, Riley simply wants to share his story.
In what he describes as a monthslong struggle with the city, he describes his largest issues as the city's abatement of people's property without having the property owner present, a “communication breakdown,” the expensive and wasteful practice of watering lawns, and the feeling of disrespect and antipathy he says he repeatedly experienced at the hands of city staffers.
In the weeds
Riley has been cultivating a xeriscape — landscapes requiring little to no irrigation — in his yard since 2007. He hasn't irrigated his lawn since that time. Though he’s had on and off spats with his homeowner’s association, it wasn’t until 2016 that somebody complained to the city about his yard. He spoke with the city’s code enforcement office, explaining that his limited financial resources and partial disability prevented him from hiring a contractor or operating machinery. Riley suffers from chemotherapy-induced neuropathy, causing oscillations of pain and numbness in his hands and feet. If the city received no further complaints, the officer said, the city would look the other way. According to Riley, weeks later, the flowers bloomed. The complaints stopped. The issue, he hoped, was resolved.
On June 7, 2017, it became clear it was not. That day, Riley received a letter from the city notifying him that his yard was in violation of a city code prohibiting grass and weeds from reaching a height of 8 or more inches. Riley called the city the next day and left a message. Three weeks later, code enforcement manager Matt Owczarek called him back. A meeting was set for July 6 between Riley, Owczarek and city building inspector Brad Solon. At the meeting Riley explained his situation, offered assistance in amending the code to allow for xeriscaping in low-density residential neighborhoods, and said the city could use his land as a testing ground.
A day later, Riley called the police to report a suspected poisoning of his wildflowers. He then called Owczarek to notify him of the news and the likely pending investigation. He asked Owczarek to delay any abatement of his land while the investigation moved forward. Owczarek, according to a journal Riley kept of the events, said he’d notify Solon.
The next day, July 8, Riley received a letter from Solon rejecting the appeal of his code violation. “The property will be re-checked on or about Friday, July 14, 2017 to verify compliance,” it reads. That same day, an officer with the police department told Riley he needed to gather preliminary surveillance and material evidence in order to bring about an investigation, but the department would increase night patrols of the area to assist with added surveillance.
Two days later, on July 10, Riley went to city hall to update Solon on the pending investigation. There, according to Riley’s journal, he learned Owczarek had not passed on the message to Solon. Solon said he would speak with Owczarek and the police officer with whom Riley was corresponding to figure out a plan.
Eight days later, on July 18, he returned home to find his yard mowed nearly to the ground. He hadn’t heard anything from Solon, Owczarek or the police officer since July 10. He immediately went downtown and found that the meeting never occurred.
Owczarek called Riley the next day and said he’d ordered the mowing. In a Journal interview, Owczarek said he told Solon and assistant city attorney Kinsley Groote on July 17 of the upcoming abatement.
Eventually, Riley met with Groote, who directed him that if he wanted to file a claim for the property damage incurred, he would need to contact the city’s risk management office. Ultimately, the claim was rejected. Another attempt to set up a meeting between Solon, Groote and Riley failed after Groote and Solon refused to meet with Riley. According to risk management division manager Trevor Schmelz, Groote and Solon felt all avenues at remediation had been exhausted and there was nothing left to discuss.
Riley persisted, though, and eventually convinced city’Public Works Director Dale Tech to waive the $42 administrative fee attached to the abatement bill. Now, the bill was $140. To avoid a late fee, Riley paid it. But on Sept. 13, he went before the city’s Legal and Finance Committee to appeal the bill.
As Riley explained the history of the matter to committee members, committee chair Amanda Scott cut him off.
“Mr. Riley, let’s speed this up a little bit,” Scott said. “This is asking for a refund of the $140.” Scott said she appreciated Riley trying to work with the city to change the current ordinance, but that it had little to do with the appeal of the abatement fee.
“You’re just basically asking for a refund because you felt your yard should have been natural-scape?” she asked.
“No, I’m asking for a refund because I felt that the mowing was premature and unnecessary,” Riley replied.
The appeal was unanimously denied moments later and the denial was approved at the following city council meeting Sept. 18.
Flowers, and trust, lost
The city may consider the matter resolved. Riley, though, does not. Aside from the $140 fee, Riley compiled a list of the flora he’d planted in his yard with an estimate by an area nursery of the price for each. Overall, the cost comes to about $336, plus the $140 abatement fee.
To Riley, $140 to mow a yard that, according to the timestamps atop the before and after photos of the service, took about 10 minutes, seems like a rip-off to not only himself, but the city and taxpayers, too.
“I don’t really know what goes into their cost there,” Owczarek said when asked about the fee, explaining that the city is billed for the services rendered by their contractor — in this case, Cricket Lawn Services — on a case-by-case basis, but that manpower, equipment use and time were likely the three main factors in determining cost.
But money is just part of the puzzle.
“When you get into a situation where you’ve been wronged, you can do one of two things,” Riley said in an interview. “Either turn your back and forget it, or face it head on. And my belief is you have to face these things head on. If you’ve truly been wronged you need to face them head on or it’s going to be worse for the next guy, because a precedent starts to get set. Until you stand up and say something about it they’re going to walk all over you again, and they’re going to walk on somebody else because it was easy.”
The cause of the issue, Riley contends, is less malice than simple communication breakdowns.
“We were working toward a resolving end to this and then communication fell apart,” he said. “Everything I’ve experienced relates to communication dysfunction”
“There really wasn’t any communication breakdown that I’m aware of,” he said. According to city code, Owczarek’s office sent out the necessary notifications of impending abatement. Further, on Oct. 2, the Rapid City Council approved alterations to the city code Riley’s property was in violation of when they included a definition of a “natural area” as “uncultivated or unseeded land still in a state of nature.”
“Any growth on land,” it continues, “once it has been cleared or plowed, is not a natural area even though it has not been planted or cultivated by anyone.” Responding to a Journal inquiry, Groote said the new language and exceptions “would not exempt Mr. Riley’s property if he continued to have it the same condition as he did when his property had the abatement performed on it this summer.”
All that matters little to Riley, though.
“Losing trust in people; that hit me the hardest,” he said of the event’s impact. “I was told one thing and something entirely different was done in several steps along the way.”
Riley expects to take the matter to small claims court as he continues attempts at retribution for his flowers and abatement fee. But when spring arrives next year, any further attempts at xeriscaping appear unlikely.
“There’s a point where you just are butting your head against a wall,” he said. “I tried, you know? I made my case. There’s a point where you have to say it’s not worth fighting and do the best you can within code.”