Christmas on city’s mind

NEW ULM — The City Council on Tuesday discussed the downtown Christmas decorations.

The New Ulm Chamber’s Retail Service Specialist Cara Knauf gave an update on the holiday garlands.

The downtown holiday decorations have been an annual tradition in New Ulm for decades, but following a small fire in 2016 caused by a connection on the garland’s wiring, the city has begun discussing the overall safety and future of the garlands. In 2017, only seven garland strands were hung instead of the traditional 12.

In March, the Chamber of Commerce submitted a survey to downtown property owners on whether they wished to allow a garland be hung from their business. For a garland to be hung, two businesses across from each other must approve. At this time, there are only five locations on Minnesota Street in which both sides of the street are willing to hang a garland. Knauf said a few were maybes, but only because the business across from them said no.

Knauf said the next step was providing business owners with information about easement, insurance and liability concerns.

City Manager Brian Gramentz said the city does not have an answer to those questions, but suggested the city could look into writing up an easement.

Knauf said the guide wires will also need to be replaced and there is a question of who will pay for that.

Gramentz said the city has ownership of the lights and wires, but they don’t have an official easement to maintain them.

The safety of anchoring the garlands to the buildings is another issue. The anchors might not be able to support the garlands anymore. If an anchor point on a building fails, debris might fall on pedestrians.

The council was supportive of continuing the holiday garland tradition, but agreed the issue will require more research.

Council member Les Schultz said he received many calls from people who feel strongly about maintaining the garlands. He supports moving forward, but said the city needs to work quickly to answer all the questions about structural integrity and responsibility.

Gramentz said a business might be ‘yes’ on a garland, only to change their mind once there is a cost associated with upgrading their building.

“Some buildings are probably really strong, others may not be,” Gramentz said.

Mayor Robert Beussman said the structural integrity of the downtown businesses was a concern outside the Christmas decorations. He suggested it was in the city’s best interest to inspect them regardless of whether they anchor a guideline.

City Attorney Roger Hippert agreed to work on an easement agreement for the property owners. The city will also take the lead of inspecting the buildings.

The cost of the inspection and new guide wires will need to come back to the city council.

Schultz commented that any expenses incurred would likely be one-time and would help continue the garland tradition over years to come.

In other news, the council tabled a permit request from Beth and Jason Vavra allowing a special-purpose fence to remain on their Summit Avenue property.

The Vavras already received a fence permit and installed the fence, but the maximum fence height for a front yard is 4 feet, and the one currently installed is 6 feet.

The planning commission previously recommended approving the fence because the additional height will provide privacy and safety for the family and the fence looks aesthetically pleasing.

Schultz was hesitant to approve the permit because it sets a precedent for approving permits after the fact.

“We’re telling other folks ‘go ahead and put it up and it will probably be passed at the council meeting,'” Schultz said. “That’s not the way the world works, and that’s not how our ordinance is set up.”

Councilor David Christian had similar concerns. He said it was often easier to ask for forgiveness, then permission. Christian added staff was suppose to hand out packets with a permit specifying what is allowed, to prevent this situation.

Beth and Jason Vavra both spoke at the meeting. They said they were told a six-foot fence was acceptable. Beth Vavra said they were never given a packet and were approved for a permit after she drew a simple map of the fence line. It was only after Building Inspector Elwood Zabel reviewed the fence that they realized it was out of compliance.

City Manager Brian Gramentz said 99 percent of the time when someone who comes in for a fence permit, they get all the fence information. He was uncertain how the misunderstanding happened this time.

“We’re not just putting up a fence because we want a fence and it looks nice,” Vavra said. “It’s for privacy and safety of children.”

Council President Charlie Schmitz said he did not want to penalize them if city staff made the mistake.

The Vavras explained the fence was not cemented in place, but driven in with stakes. It could be easily removed if they moved or their neighbor moved.

Councilor Larry Mack made a motion to approve the permit but it failed for lack of a second.

Schultz wanted to hear from the building inspector before approving anything. It was suggested the decision be tabled until the next meeting and it was unanimously approved.

The permit will come back to the July 17 council meeting.