Mowing methods rile residents
Ron and Marty Martin live on North Charley Bluff Road in Milton Township. Their business, Midwest Prairies, restores woodland and prairie habitats.
For six seasons, Ron Martin has worked to restore native prairie to the ditch line and fields near the road.
He knows the county owns road rights of way, but he also understands the value of a native plant community to the long-term health of the environment.
So it's not surprising that the Martins were dismayed when, a few weeks ago, the Rock County Public Works Department came by with a mower and cut their plantings to stubble.
The Martins stopped the man, but much of the damage already had been done.
The mower's operator then unintentionally added insult to prairie plant injury by leaving uncut a large swath of ditch filled with invasive wild parsnip.
Martin is a reasonable man. He understands roadside plants cause vision problems at intersections, but he doesn't live anywhere near an intersection.
"If they can give me a good reason for doing mowing, I'll listen," Martin said.
Rock County's 20 townships have varying approaches to roadside mowing.
Five contract with private businesses, 13 contract with the county and two do their own mowing.
The county owns the road rights of way, and the towns are responsible for upkeep, said Ben Coopman, Rock County director of public works. In most cases, the rights of ways extend 33 feet from the center of the road—or 66 feet total. In more recent land divisions or housing developments, the rights of way might be as wide as 80 feet, Coopman said.
"Mowing is a subject that's tender in our hearts around here," Coopman said. "The townships tend to do a minimal amount. They used to do more but with austerity measures have started to do much less."
Why mow at all?
Coopman gave the following reasons:
-- Safety—Mowing keeps vision triangles at intersections clear and reduces the number of car-deer and other animal-related accidents.
-- Flooding—Rural drainage ditches and culverts prevent flooding in fields and roads. Scrub trees and other fast growing plants can fill ditches in just a few growing seasons.
-- Snow removal—After a major storm, clear rights of way are crucial to plowing operations.
For most towns, however, road repair costs are the main reasons for mowing.
"Mowing is the cheapest form of road maintenance," said Bryan Meyer, Milton town chairman. "If you didn't mow at all, then you'd have to do a lot of tree trimming."
Why not just let trees grow?
The parts of the road shaded by mature trees go through more freeze-and-thaw cycles, affecting the integrity of the road's surface and causing it to break apart.
The first time a road contractor told Meyers about the tree-roadwork connection, he couldn't believe it.
"I thought the guy was just trying to make some money off of me," Meyer said.
But then Meyer witnessed the phenomenon first-hand.
Rock County's Coopman and other highway engineers back up Meyers.
Coopman in 2010 told the Gazette: "That part of the road doesn't get the sunlight, and it doesn't dry out as fast. It goes through more freeze-and-thaw cycles."
In the same story, a town official said it would cost about $185,000 to grind up a mile of road and put in a double lift of blacktop.
When Meyers and other town officials consider where—and how often—to mow, they're weighing safety and financial issues.
Mow once or twice a year, and you can take out the saplings with the rest of the plants.
Let the saplings grow, and then you're hiring contractors to remove trees, or, even worse, to replace blacktop.
Meyers said residents may call township offices and request that mowers go easy on their property.
But he wouldn't make any promises. A miscommunication or a misread fire number might mean the loss of a right-of-way garden.