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Cutting weeds to cut risk

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Posted: Friday, July 4, 2008 10:00 pm

It is not the most pleasant of sights in Lodi. Waist-high yellow and brown weeds stretch for blocks between the railroad tracks and back fences of South Sacramento Street homes.

A faint whiff of wildfire smoke lingers in the air from far-off fires, serving as a reminder of parched California's fire danger. One spark - whether from a passing train, a trouble-making youth or sunlight hitting a piece of shiny garbage the right way - could start a fire that would quickly burn through the dry weeds.

It is a danger that has worried residents for decades, and the Lodi Fire Department has had enough.

Last week, fire officials began posting notices on railroad tracks near Holly Drive, and they have sent a letter to Union Pacific Railroad, ordering the rail company to clean up the weeds by Sacramento Street. If they do not, the city will do it and then bill the railroad, Fire Chief Michael Pretz said Thursday.

"That would be a lot better than us having to fight a fire to save our houses," said longtime South Sacramento Street resident Mary Olvera.

Her house was built in 1954, and her father and a neighbor spent many years fighting the city and railroad in an attempt to get the weeds cleaned up. Her father died a dozen years ago, but the problem did not go away.

Some summers saw Olvera and her family wetting down their roof for fear that the latest grassfire would throw embers into the air. Other times they fought back with garden hoses until firefighters extinguished the blazes.

It took an April 2004 fire, which burned 400 feet of residential fences, to make a change, Olvera said.

"After that we noticed that the field was being tilled on a regular basis, but nothing's been done recently," she said.

Who to contact

Anyone who sees suspicious activity, such as dumping or loitering, near a Union Pacific railroad track may call the company's toll-free emergency number at (888) 877-7267. The company works with local law enforcement and can try to combat the dumping before it gets out of hand, spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said.

Property along the railroad tracks is not the only place in Lodi where weeds are growing. Some lots on Cherokee Lane were recently discussed by the Lodi Improvement Committee, member Sunil Yadav said, and he encouraged residents to attend the meetings to voice concerns. The committee's next meeting is Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Carnegie Forum, 305 W. Pine St.

- News-Sentinel staff

A Union Pacific spokeswoman said the rail company tries to maintain its 33,000 miles of tracks, and that includes property on either side of the actual rail lines.

"If it's our property, it's our responsibility to keep it clean and neat and to comply with local ordinances," spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said.

A number of Union Pacific officials were out of the office Thursday afternoon, the day before the Independence Day holiday, so Richmond could not confirm that the company had received Lodi's letter. She also did not know when the weeds in Lodi will be cleared.

"If it's not cleaned up by the time it's supposed to be, we will pay the fire department for it, but we'd rather do it ourselves," she said.

Under Lodi's municipal code, fire officials can order that weeds be cut back and trash be removed if they pose fire hazards. Once notice is given and signs are posted, the property owner has 14 days to clean up the problem, or 10 days to request a hearing in front of the City Council.

In most cases, signs aren't even necessary because the owners clean up the problem, Pretz said.

"The difficulty we seem to be having is that the railroads are less responsive to weeds than homeowners and property owners," he said.

The Union Pacific tracks that run north and south through town near Sacramento Street are certainly an example of weeds given complete freedom. They average about three to four feet tall, but some stretch to about six feet.

Residents could hop over their back fences and cut the weeds by hand, but that is actually illegal because it would involve trespassing on private railroad-owned property.

"It would be a lot safer for everyone involved if the city just rototilled it and just sent the bill to the bloody railroad," Olvera said.

Central California Traction Company, which owns the rail lines east of Highway 99, mows and sprays about twice a year or as needed, said General Manager Dave Buccolo. Chemicals kill hearty thistles, and then once the grass is mowed after the spring moisture, the weeds don't generally grow back until the next year, he said. His company owns 47 miles of tracks, which he noted is significantly less than Union Pacific's responsibility.

Another problem for rail companies is the trash that collects among the weeds. Just one small area in Lodi held a crippled stroller and countless other bits of trash on Thursday.

Buccolo said he recently had to get rid of an entire bedroom set that someone had apparently decided to dump, rather than pay a minimal fee to take it to the San Joaquin County dump.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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  • posted at 5:55 pm on Mon, Jul 7, 2008.


    simple solution: find the taggers who paint up the railcars, sentence them to chop and rake weeds. 1 oz paint = 100 yards of clean-up.

  • posted at 10:18 am on Sat, Jul 5, 2008.


    T & C, thanks to you and your "volunteerism, the city can lay off a couple of more maintenence workers and cut the park attendants back to 32 hours a week. Just who do you think handled those jobs with ease until the city laid them off? There was always more than enough money in the budget until the "big bang" at LEUD that sent Lodi hundreds of millions in debt because of some very poor choices by council and management. I do appreciate your work and I do some myself when I'm able. I just don't like the fact that with all this debt, the city looks to citizens to volunteer to do the work that once provided someone a good job and future within the city structure. Yet we don't hesitate to give Tony Segale another $46,000 to paint a mural way the heck down on Stockton or Central. Where's his volunteerism? How much of the arts money has gone to him and to non-profits owned by the gob's? I know these funds are earmarked for their own purpose but why not to someone besides council favorite buddies? The walldogs set us back plenty. Paint weeds green-instead.

  • posted at 8:10 am on Sat, Jul 5, 2008.


    I believe there is a group in Lodi that cleaned up trash in alleys and elsewhere in town. Perhaps they could do the same with the weed situation. This requires a little more work, but then think of all the "giving back" they would do for the city. When their finished, send the bill to the rail road, Oh and do it early in the morning, we wouldn`t want to start a fire.

  • posted at 6:59 am on Sat, Jul 5, 2008.


    Well papercut, aka edumacation, aka T&c...its called "volunteerism", helping the community with a little sweat and an hour or two of one's time! It isn't about the "Paranoia of "GOBS" everywhere, lol, on top the parking garage, in the trees, hiding behind the dumpster, GOBS everywhere, lol, it's about seeing a "Positive way" one can help the community, rather then COMPLAIN, COMPLAIN, and COMPLAIN! I cannot save the world, but I can make a difference in Lodi in small ways. Raymond.

  • posted at 6:56 am on Sat, Jul 5, 2008.


    I cut down as many tall weeds and tumbleweeds as I can all over town! It's just a postive thing to do!

  • posted at 6:37 am on Sat, Jul 5, 2008.


    And how about the slumlords with houses and apartments on the eastside that have tenants and still knee high weeds? Many of them live here in Lodi but are afraid to even go into that area to check on their rentals or their tenants, except to pick up their cash or money orders from them. Wonder why so many of those tenants don't have bank accounts, especially those with jobs. I'll bet they don't even require credit or background checks on their tenants, just cash.

  • posted at 2:49 am on Sat, Jul 5, 2008.


    How about all the empty lots and vacant realtor and bank-owned homes? Who do we call to report them? Do the gob's and F&M bank still have their get out of jail free cards from the ex-chief?



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