By Wilson Walker

NOVATO (KPIX 5) — A Novato open space preserve has become a battleground between the neighbors who bought it and the county that cares for it.

The Pacheco Valle Preserve, like much of the Bay Area, is dry and over grown. That’s a prescription for fire or a rattlesnake bite. It largely comes down to the question: Mow, or grow?

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It all started with the best of intentions when Pacheco Valle homeowners agreed to buy the meadow and officially make it a public, open space.

But while the private owner spent 30 years mowing this grass for fire safety, the county simply let it grow.

Novato resident Kay White said, “We started having problems when the grass grew more than 5-feet high.”

Homeowners here will tell you it’s not so much rattlesnakes they worry about, but coming across a cigarette butt.

“One cigarette could start it blazing,” White said.

And just like that, the debate caught fire: to mow, or not to mow.

“And people just squared off in confrontation,” White explains.

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One vigilante mower even took the matter into their own hands – cutting the grass in the dead of night.

So now the county has proposed a compromise:

Marin County Parks acting director Max Korten said the county aims to leave the land natural and reduce fire risk by moving a trail closer to the road and installing new fences.

Korten said, “Protecting the environment and protecting communities from wildfire, I think this is what that plan does that.”

But those changes were never part of the plan when neighbors bought this space.

White said, “Our neighborhood is filled with professional litigants.”

Korten said there are about seven homeowners associations.

It’s a case of not really knowing what you have – until you actually have it, and now comes the challenge of getting everyone here to agree on a solution.

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“But it’s just the beginning for our neighborhood,” White said.