WILLMAR — Willmar Public Works has a request for those who park on city streets: Please find somewhere else to park following big snowfalls.
Following months of discussion, the city of Willmar is planning to implement an expanded snow emergency policy, one which encompasses the entire city. Currently, only the Central Business District in downtown Willmar is placed under a snow emergency.
"The bottom line is, what we want to try to do is, if we call a snow emergency in the entire town, we would not allow parking on city streets until those streets are clear," said Public Works Director Sean Christensen.
The snow emergency policy was discussed at Monday's Willmar City Council meeting. The council unanimously approved staff drafting the formal procedure for the expanded snow emergency. The goal is to put it into effect in 2020, during the current winter season.
"We are committed to making this happen in 2020," said Councilor Julie Asmus. "This is going to happen."
Public Works staff, along with the council's Public Works and Public Safety Committee, have been discussing an update of the city's snow removal procedures for more than a year. Last winter's immense snow load left some residential streets nearly impassable for anyone, especially emergency vehicles.
"We've been exploring the potential to declare a snow emergency for the city of Willmar," said Councilor Andrew Plowman, who is also the chair of the Public Works Committee. "It is by no means a simple process to figure out how to do that."
Christensen said that, according to city attorney Robert Scott, the city's current snow emergency policy, Sec. 15-59 of the Willmar Municipal Code, is written in such a way that implementing a snow emergency across the entire city is possible without amending the ordinance.
"We don't need a new ordinance to do what we are describing here," Christensen said.
However, if the council decides it wants to make significant changes to the policy, such as divide the town into sections or do an odd/even address pattern of snow removal, the city would need to update the ordinance and that would require a public hearing.
Christensen said his crew can get most of the city plowed in fewer than eight hours, following a 4- to 8-inch snow fall, if the streets are clear of vehicles. Larger snowfalls, as well as other weather conditions, could impact the amount of time it takes to clear a street from curb to curb. There are nine different city plow routes, and the plow crews usually start at about 4 a.m.
"By noon, most of the town, if not all the town, is covered," Christensen said.
According to the current policy, a snow emergency can be called by the Public Works supervisor or their designee. The emergency cannot go into effect until at least four hours have passed since the emergency was declared. This means if Public Works Supervisor Gary Manzer makes the call at 6 p.m. to declare a snow emergency, the earliest that cars would need to be removed from the street is 10 p.m.
The snow emergency is publicized in local media and on social media, including when the it will start and when it will expire. Christensen said the city is also looking into software that will send out text alerts to residents' cellphones.
Once a plow clears a street from curb to curb, drivers are welcome to park their vehicles back on the street. This could mean less than an hour for some properties, or several hours for others.
"At worst-case scenario, it is an eight-hour inconvenience for people," Manzer said.
If vehicles are left on the streets during a snow emergency, before the plow comes through, the vehicle could be ticketed and/or towed.
"No one wants to tow vehicles: It is an inconvenience," Manzer said. "It is an inconvenience for us to plow around them too."
Challenges discussed included landlords who do not allow renters to park in the driveways of properties and apartment buildings, telling their tenants to park on the streets until the building's lots are clear. Manzer is extremely concerned about the latter, because the streets around those buildings become impassable for large vehicles.
"It would be a real tragedy if there was a fire," Manzer said.
No one believes the change will be easy, and education will be a big part of making it a success.
"We are aware there are challenges. We are very aware it is a big leap, it is a big policy. And it is not going to be without some trial and error," Plowman said.
While the new snow emergency might take some getting used to, and be an inconvenience for drivers, in the end it is about safety and efficiency.
"Our number one main concern, always, is safety for the citizens of Willmar," Plowman said. "Then expediency and efficiency for our Public Works crews being out there."