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Prospect of 'snow emergency' stirs concern for Duluth's vulnerable residents

City staff have decided to cut disabled motorists some slack with parking enforcement on snow emergency routes.

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A city of Duluth truck plows snow on Crosley Avenue in Duluth in December 2019. Clint Austin/ File / Duluth News Tribune

After years of letting its snow emergency powers atrophy, the city of Duluth is fixing to flex its rediscovered parking enforcement muscles anew this winter. The city installed more than 2,000 signs along designated snow emergency routes this year and has sent out 77,000 mailings to residents and property owners to bring them up to speed on new rules that will go into effect as snow arrives in the Northland.

But the city’s efforts to clear snow more quickly and efficiently in extreme weather have made some folks understandably nervous.

“It’s something new, and we don’t know how it will impact folks,” said Roberta Cich, chair of Duluth’s Commission on Disabilities.

About 115 parking spots along Duluth’s snow emergency routes have been designated for people with disabilities. These commonly are located in front of the homes of disabled residents who lack off-street parking.

The city has notified people that following a severe snow storm, it intends to declare a snow emergency by no later than 4 p.m., giving motorists until 9 p.m. to remove their parked vehicles from snow emergency routes. People who fail to comply risk a ticket and/or a tow.

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But Cich pointed out that even moving a vehicle to a side street can be a challenge for someone with a disability.

“Duluth is so unique with its geography. A street out in front of a building could be relatively level, and a side street could be too steep for someone with a disability to safely navigate,” she said, noting that much of the rental housing in Duluth’s Hillside neighborhoods lacks off-street parking.

The city has designated several “amnesty lots,” where people can park for free during a snow emergency from 4 p.m. on the day the emergency is declared until 8 p.m. the following day. These are city-owned lots, primarily in Duluth’s core, but Mayor Emily Larson noted they are located on city bus routes, enabling motorists to park and ride, potentially returning to retrieve a vehicle via public transit, as well.

Cich said that may be a workable solution for some people with disabilities, but not all.

That’s why she welcomed the city’s recent decision to grant clemency to disabled motorists parked in spots designated for disabled parking this winter, as Duluth re-establishes its long-neglected snow emergency powers.

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One of 2,266 snow emergency route signs Duluth has installed along 120 miles of city roads. Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Mark Bauer, manager of parking services for the city of Duluth, said he still hopes people will do their best to remove vehicles from snow emergency routes when a snow emergency is declared.

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Under state law, he said the city does have the right to ticket and tow vehicles otherwise legally parked in spots designated for disabled motorists on a snow emergency route during a snow emergency.

“Having said that, we did do an internal review and decided as a city policy that while we are telling folks to do the best they can to help us out, to move their vehicles off the street,“ Bauer said.

Nevertheless, the city intends to take a more gentle approach.

“We have decided not to ticket and tow vehicles that are legally parked in an on-street ADA stall,” Bauer said.

At large Councilor Terese Tomanek pointed out that even if disabled drivers are allowed to leave their vehicles in a parked place during a snow emergency, they would likely be plowed in.

“Is there any help available for people who are now able to keep their car there, if they need to? Is there any way to get them shoveled out, or will they be relying on their neighbors?” she asked.

Carl Crawford, Duluth’s human rights officer, said the situation for stranded vehicles really is no different than what people have faced in previous winters.

“But I am reaching out to those who may find that this will be a challenge moving forward. I look forward to that outcome for those folks to reach out and let us know how that’s going,” he said. “We have a couple of folks who have let us know that this is going to be a concern, and my goal is to stay in touch with them as we move throughout the winter to find some solutions.”

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Bauer and Crawford said they are working on a case-by-case basis with individual residents and their neighbors to see what options might be available.

No two situations are quite the same, Cich acknowledged. That’s why she encourages people to think ahead, ask questions and seek solutions in collaboration with city staff and neighbors.

“Sometimes there are answers, but we just haven’t thought of them,” Cich said.

Mayor Larson said Duluth’s snow emergency reboot has been more than two years in the making. The city had hoped to relaunch the protocol last year, but pandemic budgetary concerns temporarily delayed the city’s investment in signs to mark snow emergency routes.

SEE ALSO: Emails provide inside look at city of Duluth's scramble in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving weekend blizzard Flurry of snow-removal complaints forced staff to adopt 'triage' response system
A 2019 Thanksgiving weekend snow storm that immobilized much of Duluth prompted criticism and review of the city’s snow-removal efforts.

Larson said the city now has a detailed prioritization plan in place and also will be using global positioning satellite technology to track the progress of plows across the city.

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