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City of Willmar increases zoning nuisance violation enforcement

WILLMAR — To continue its mission of helping keep the people of Willmar healthy and safe in and out of their homes, the staff of the Planning and Development Department are going to focus on building safety and enforcing nuisance ordinances this year. 

“It is all about life safety,” said Willmar Building Official Randy Kardell.

For the month of May, the department will promote building safety with public service announcements and other programs.

The big push will be taking care of zoning nuisance violations.

“Zoning is called our community enhancement program and deals with a variety of issues,” Kardell said.

Nuisances, which range from unlicensed vehicles to garbage and furniture in the yard, are usually driven by neighbor complaints, but this year the council has directed city staff to be more aggressive when inspecting properties.

“We’re going to put more effort in having staff in the field. There will be a lot of citations written,” said Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson.

The city will still rely on complaint calls, as well, to find the violators.

Those with concerns or questions can call 320-235-8311.

In 2015 there were 605 violation inspections, coming from about 300 reports of zoning violations, said Megan DeSchepper, city planner. That number doesn’t count the violations that were taken care of with a single phone call.

When Peterson first arrived in Willmar in 1986, there was only one violation.

“Every year we keep increasing the number of violations we have,” Peterson said.

Sometimes the violations Kardell sees are hard to believe.

It is not uncommon for city staff to find old mattresses, electronics or furniture just piled in people’s yards. Some say they thought if they put it on the curb, it would get picked up.

“The city does not take it,” Peterson said.

The nuisances are not only an eyesore, they can also be public health and safety risk. Garbage in yards can attract vermin, which can then attract predators.

“It is unbelievable,” Kardell said.

Once a violation is tagged by the city, the property owner has seven days to comply with the order. In cases where public health is a risk, like garbage bags lying outside, the city gives only three days, Kardell said. If the violation is not taken care of, the city passes the violation over to the Willmar Police Department, who can then issue a citation.

About 75 percent of nuisance violation orders are complied with, but another quarter drag on. Those who do not address a violation can be cited for a petty misdemeanor or charged with a misdemeanor, which can include fines and even jail time.

“You’re first-time ticket is going to cost you a minimum of $150,” Kardell said.

The Willmar Police Department and Kandiyohi County attorney help a great deal when violations have to be referred for legal action, Peterson said.

A new database will make it easier for staff to keep track of violations and those who are repeat offenders.

The reason for the rise in violations could be lack of education or a larger population of new residents. Though some of it might just be convenience.

“It is easier to just throw it outside, just park it, it is cheaper that way,” Peterson said.

The increase in the number of rental properties might also be a reason for the increase in violations. Renters may not have the same pride in their homes as a property owner might, DeSchepper said.

“The whole dynamic has changed,” Peterson said.

Peterson said landlords should write tougher leases and collect larger deposits from renters to help combat some of the zoning violations.

“Put more responsibility on the tenant,” Peterson said.

Rental violations can also be a challenge as landlords might be difficult to find. City staff have had to work hard to find some, who might not even live in state.

“They’ve turned into little detectives. An excellent job is being done for the citizens,” Peterson said of his staff.

The ultimate goal is simple.

“We just want clean yards,” DeSchepper said.

Well-tended neighborhoods are a draw and can help keep those who work in Willmar living in Willmar as well.

“It sets a mood and atmosphere for the community,” Peterson said.

At the same time Planning and Development will be hard at work cleaning up the residential neighborhoods, staff will also have a large number of building permits to help with.

“We’ve got a number of projects,” Peterson said. This coming year there are major projects happening with retail, schools and medical.

“I think we’ll see an uptick in residential construction,” Peterson said.

While Peterson can’t say yet who the possible retailers are, he did say he sees the projects as positives for the community.

What is clear is Planning and Development is gearing up for a lot of work.

“It is going to be a very busy summer for us,” Kardell said.

Willmar’s top zoning violations

Here are the most common zoning nuisance violations in the city of Willmar:

Excess garbage on property/lack of garbage service

Furniture/mattresses/electronics left on the curb

Unlicensed vehicles

Violation of parking ordinances, e.g., parking in the front yard