After three years educating the public about the hazards of noxious weeds, Cowlitz County officials are starting to crack down on landowners who are "harboring" the plants.
Citations — and fines — are now possible for landowners who have ignored requests to eradicate the plants. It's the first time in recent years that the county has used its weed enforcement authority, though officials still hope those steps won't be necessary.
"The public needs to be aware of their responsibilities, but we also want to provide them with all the tools and resources available," said Angelica Velazquez, the county's noxious weed coordinator. "But some landowners might also need a bit of a nudge."
Velazquez has spent the past three years educating people about noxious weeds after the position was vacant for several years. Officials deliberately focused on education for the first three years to help residents understand the problem.
These plants may just seem like any other weed, but Velazquez said some varieties are poisonous to animals and humans. Primarily, though, they pose a threat to agriculture because they quickly spread and choke out other plants. There are 481 farms in Cowlitz County, and farming is a $26 million industry here, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
"The weed laws are in place to protect (the farming) industry and also the forest and natural resources that we all enjoy," Velazquez said.
State law gives the county authority to enforce noxious weed laws and issue court citations, similar to animal control violations. Fines are assessed per day and per type of weed, so a landowner could wrack up concurrent fines if more than one type of noxious weed is present. The fines start at $250 but can climb to as much as $1,000 for repeat offenders. Court fees also are assessed.
Officials stress that the goal is to get rid of the plants, not fine landowners. Anyone with the weeds will get a notice and information about ways to control or remove the plants. A second letter is sent if there's no response, giving landowners 14 days to address the problem or face a citation and fines.
It's only after all these attempts are ignored that citations, court appearances and fines will be deployed, Velazquez said.
Velazquez drives the county looking for the banned weeds on public areas. A seasonal weed control worker also keeps an eye out for weeds. She's not allowed to enter private property to search for weeds, but she can make note of any visible from public roads or land. Any weed violations spotted within the cities are referred to city officials, she said.
Government agencies are just as much on the hook as private landowners and also will receive citations, she said.
"This is across the board," Velazquez said. "Everyone has a responsibility to remove these weeds because they all impact us."