William Mantz and the City of DeBary have a long-running disagreement about what constitutes a proper lawn.
The latest dispute, involving various “overgrown” plants in his yard, including some spiderwort and Bidens alba growing near Mantz’s mailbox, resulted in a $135,000 fine against Mantz that grows larger by the day.
In a visit to his home last year, DeBary’s Neighborhood Improvement Officer found “high growth of weeds” in Mantz’s yard, and a “debris pile” in the rear of his home.
In the city’s view, the plants are weeds grown too tall, and they constitute a code violation. Mantz feels differently. A retired landscaper, he said, spiderwort and Bidens alba — two of the plants the city wants trimmed — are native plants that provide food for bees and butterflies.
Mantz said he is “defending the defenseless environment.” A faded sign in his yard proclaims: “God gave us Jesus Christ. The Roman government killed him. God gave us Mother Nature. The DeBary government is killing her.”
As for the growing $135,000 fine — about 119 percent of what the property appraiser says Mantz’s house is worth — the city doesn’t really expect to get all of it.
“We’re not looking for that, but we need to ensure there is a penalty for people who violate the code your neighbors are abiding by,” DeBary Communications Director Shari Simmans told The Beacon. “This is a health issue.”
Yes, it’s a health issue, Mantz agrees. It’s about the health of Florida’s natural environment and the creatures who depend on it. He proudly points out the apron of a gopher-tortoise burrow visible under a tangle of growth in his yard.
The very same burrow has the city concerned there may be rats and other animals living in his yard, too.
“I love my yard and the life it supports,” his sign also reads.
A few years back, the last time the city cited Mantz for his yard, the fine grew to nearly $20,000. He hired a lawyer who negotiated a payment of $1,250, and the Bidens alba, one of the offending plants, died back naturally.
For Mantz, whose $650 monthly Social Security check supports him and two rescued Chihuahua-mix pups in his comfortable, paid-for home, even that sharply reduced fine was nearly two months of income.
Ask the City of DeBary, and it’s simple: Eliminate the code violation and much of the fine will go away. City officials don’t even really expect to get all of the $135,000 dangling over Mantz’s head.
But governmental fines can function as liens on a person’s property. If the argument isn’t resolved, the City of DeBary could go to court and take possession of the home to get paid. DeBary city officials didn’t indicate they were considering that route.
Mantz’s landscape — although very similar to a vacant lot about a block away — is less trimmed than the lawns of his immediate neighbors. His yard comprises a diverse collection of trees and plants growing largely uncontrolled.
Mantz doesn’t own a lawn mower, and tends to bring out his weed-wacker only to get any grass out of the way of plants that are a better nectar source for pollinators.
Although Mantz said he hasn’t heard complaints from his near neighbors, there have been complaints about his yard — including from his nextdoor neighbor — resulting in the current code-violation case.
DeBary City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said Mantz’s neighbors don’t appreciate his landscaping.
“They want the city to correct it because it devalues their homes when they see the condition this home is in,” Rosamonda said. “He’s got his own landscaping theory, and so he’s using a lot of different other things.”
Simmons said, “He may not care that he’s damaging the economic welfare of his property, but his neighbors do. Does someone want to live next door to a house that has this?”
Mantz has cut the spiderwort near his mailbox, and he requested that the city manager personally visit and judge whether he is now in compliance. At press time, he hadn’t gotten a response.
Maybe the city would be more willing to work with Mantz if he were less forward, less ready to talk your ear off about defending the environment, and less frustrated if you don’t agree. But code enforcement is an institution that reacts to complaints and city code, not to evolving environmental standards.
In a fight between gangly plants beloved by bees and butterflies, or lawns kept neat by fertilizers, pesticides and water, the well-trimmed lawns win.
“The bottom line is, you have to comply when you live in a community,” Simmans said.
DeLand horticulture consultant Erin Miceli confirmed that William Mantz’s offending plants do play a key role in the ecosystem.
Spiderwort and Bidens alba were the offending “weeds” cited by the city.
“‘Spiderwort’ Tradescantia ohiensis is one of the most important plants to provide nectar in the early spring, as it blooms before most other flowers,” Miceli said. “Bidens alba not only provides nectar for many species of native pollinators. It is also the larval host plant for the dainty sulphur butterfly.”