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Council works on defining what is blight

NEW ULM– It is a violation of city code to place or store any unlicensed, unregistered or inoperable motor vehicle, trailer or recreational vehicle on public or private property.

The city is questioning how to fairly enforce the ordinance.

During a recent City Council work session, staff presented a sample amendment to the blight ordinance formally granting an exception to auto repair businesses.

Auto repair businesses are expected to have inoperable vehicles being repaired on site and exceptions were already granted for these types of businesses.

The ordinance currently divides auto repair into major and minor repairs. A major auto repair facility requires all vehicle storage to be surrounded by an enclosure to screen view of vehicles behind an opaque fence.

Minor auto repair facilities are allowed to have an outdoor storage area that is 25% of the buildable area of the lot. Inoperable vehicles stored outdoors can remain onsite for 30 consecutive days.

The amendment brought in for consideration allows outdoor storage at minor auto repair businesses to exceed 25% of the buildable area if the entirety of the storage area is screened.

City Manager Chris Dalton said the amendment would impact some businesses in New Ulm, but it would help the city with regulating blight ordinances.

Councilor David Christian said the council as a whole needed to decide during the next meeting on how to handle vehicle blight.

Christian’s concern was the ordinance was not being enforced equally. He believed it needed to be enforced with all businesses or not at all.

Enforcement in residential areas was not the issue, he said. The problem was with businesses in non-residential areas, which he believed had many properties already out of compliance.

“I really don’t want to open a hornet’s nest with over 100 established businesses in New Ulm,” Christian said. He was concerned further regulations would upset a lot of businesses, some with manufacturers with hundreds of employees. Most of these properties are located on Valley and Front Street.

Currently, the city has been enforcing junk vehicle ordinances on a complaint basis. Christian said not all complaints are investigated. He believed fully enforcing the current ordinance fairly would require the Police Department to hire additional staff.

Councilor Les Schultz said the complaint system of enforcement was problematic. It allows a person to make multiple complaints against a property for any minor infraction if they don’t like that property owner. Meanwhile, other properties in violation might get no complaints if no one reports them.

Council President Andrea Boettger asked if blight complaints were coming from all over or were focused on an individual property.

Dalton said his office does not receive widespread complaints. The complaints he does receive are limited to South Valley Street.

Police Chief David Borchert said the department does receive periodic complaints. The numbers vary from year to year, but most of the vehicle complaints are in residential areas.

Borchert said when a complaint is received, the department monitors the site to determine if a junk vehicle is parked for 30 consecutive days.

Borchert admitted New Ulm Police couldn’t be aware of every junk vehicle and how long it has been parked at a site. With the number of officers available and those officers’ commitment to other tasks, it could not be enforced perfectly.

He added the majority of property owners after being notified of a potential violation do come into compliance. He said approximately 95% of them come into compliance before a citation is issued.

Christian said if the city was going to enforce regulation on one property, he would see to it that all properties saw the same enforcement.

Dalton said one of the purposes of the amendment was to put objective standards in place instead of subjective ones. Blight is a subjective issue. Different people have different opinions on what blight looks like. This makes enforcing blight difficult.

“One officer can say ‘that’s a blight to me’ and another officer can say ‘no,'” Dalton said. “This dials it in on what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.”

No official changes were being made to the blight ordinance as the discussion was part of a work session, not an official meeting.

Dalton encouraged councilors to speak with constituents to determine what is an appropriate standard.

One of the goals is to make enforcement of this ordinance consistent across the city.

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