What Do We Do With All This Snow?

Eds Note: With this post, we welcome a new contributor to the blog, Craig Stahl. If the last name looks a bit familiar, his wife, Lisa, has been testing out the Wasusaublog waters for a while now and I guess Craig felt it was fine to dive in. With his background in community planning I am sure Craig will add a lot to the conversation here. Welcome aboard, Craig!  I also have to say that Craig sent this to me before the warmth and the rain, but the questions are still germaine.

Craig StahlBy Craig Stahl
As we all watch those two snow mounds bracketing the entrance to our driveway grow to heights that prevent us from seeing oncoming traffic, we all begin to hope that spring comes before backing into the flow of traffic becomes a game of roulette. The Daily Herald has a story today about how the city crews scoop the snow up and take it to the snow dumps when the piles get too high. I am sure that this service is expensive on the part of the city as the labor and cost of running the vehicles to relocate all this material that eventually disappears into the Wisconsin River anyway. Is there some way to avoid this cost, yet still maintain safe conditions and roadway visibility for our community?

To start discussion, I’ll throw an idea out for comments and we’ll see where it goes from there: elected officials have the ability to set conditions on new subdivisions when they are submitted for approval. These conditions are meant to be tied to the safety and welfare of the persons expected to occupy the subdivision and to facilitate the efficiency of providing utilities and services. For example, sometimes cul-de-sacs (or culs-de-sac – I was never sure which was the proper plural) are limited in length or not allowed in certain developments so that emergency vehicles (fire, ambulance, etc.) can reach a structure without being blocked by road construction, a fallen tree, or some other obstacle that results in two EMTs running with a gurney for 2,000 feet to get to someone’s house who just had a heart attack. So let’s look at this from the perspective of snow removal. What if Wausau started declaring snow storage locations in each subdivision? That is, the subdivision developer would plat a piece of ground in the subdivision as an easement to the city (much like an utility easement) where snow is to be pushed and stored when the streets are plowed. During the rest of the year, the spot would function as open space.

I already see several problems with this idea myself, but I am intentionally leaving them out to encourage discussion. Let’s see if we can come to a result that either supports the idea, or tells us it is a bad idea. Of course, other ideas and possible solutions are most welcome.


9 responses to “What Do We Do With All This Snow?

  1. Sounds expensive… instead of pushing it to the side of the road, now you have to spend the time trying to push all the snow down narrow turning streets until you find the snow-lot. Or you have to scoop it up and then dump in the snow lot. Either way we would end up paying 2-3 times more for snow removal services than you currently would. Plus someone would have to deal with a giant snowbank overshadowing their modest house.

  2. Matthew’s point about expense is key to the solution. The snow storage points can’t be too far away from where the snow is collected or it defeats the whole purpose – we would still have to pay to push the snow somewhere and we are trying to make it less expensive than moving it to a central location.
    Now I was really waiting for somebody to jump on where the obnoxious snow bank would go in the neighborhood. Who wants the stuff dumped next to their house? And isn’t that dangerous?
    In some ways, this is similar to stormwater drainage basins that are sometimes required in new subdivisions to prevent basement flooding and roadway erosion. The developer and the village/city/town have to work out where the stormwater will be stored and how that will impact the lot layout. Often, on-site snow storage is identified on site plans for new commerical developments with parking lots. Should residential developments be held to the same standard? Is there still a way we can make this idea work to save hauling costs, or is it a bad idea that should be scrapped in favor of a different one (or none at all)?
    Thanks for your comments, Matthew!

  3. I think that most developers do take snow removal into consideration when doing a subdivision. I know we spent a great deal of time figuring in snow storage in our Mosinee Condo development.

    Personally, I am not in favor of the city mandating this space. They already mandate park space (or at a minimum park funds if space is not practical). This would just be one more requirement… one more thing adding to the cost of development.

    Yes, this does allow for more green space, but at the same time lets not forget that more green space = more sprawl. Also, how hard is it going to be for developers to sell the lot(s) adjacent to the storage area?

    From a city money perspective, how much money will the city actually save by having this close storage area? Now combine that with the potential lost tax revenue as there will be no improvement (i.e. house) but in the storage area, and the lots closest to the area will be the last to sell, will sell low, and probably not be as high of value of structures as the remaining development. All of this lowers the taxes gained.

    How much of a cost for moving the snow is really a non-cost? Those city employees are on the payroll, they are going to get paid no matter what they are doing. And, in the winter months, there aren’t that many public construction projects.

    So, with costs to do the snow removal questionable, is it worth it to permanently lower potential tax revenues?

    It is often very easy for government to spend a quarter to save a dime.

  4. John makes several excellent points. Many times, conditions added to the development increase the overall cost of the project which can cut into the developer’s profit margin – thereby making the development less worthwhile (keeping in mind that the sale value of each lot is fixed and cannot be raised significantly without pricing oneself out of the market). This can be especially true with low to moderate income housing developments where margins are already minimal.
    The snow storage points would create more greenspace requirements – or they would deny buildable yard area to the lot owner as the easement would consume land area that the adjacent property owner cannot do anything with it other than mow and maintain its appearance.
    Safety and efficiency concerns should always be applied “blindly” to and development regardless of value. That is, government should not pick and choose conditions based upon what the ultimate taxable valuation of a property will be. If there is fear that a condition will kill developments, then it should be carefully examined before adding it to the list (or the conditions should be tied to a health and safety concern that is absolutely essential to protect the public). Before I begin to sound too naive, let me be the first to say that in practice, local government often looks at property valuation first and foremost when setting conditions for development! . . . in a perfect world though. . . : )
    As for John’s last point, I cannot comment on what the City pays its road maintenance employees, what their winter job load is, or whether snow removal is contracted with a private firm. Nor do I have any idea how much it costs the city in wages, gasoline, truck parts, etc. to perform its snow removal functions. Assuming John is correct, then I would agree that requiring snow storage points in subdivisions is unlikely to generate any real cost savings to Wausau residents in the long term.
    Great Comments Dr. Rent!
    Anybody else have some other ideas – or perhaps we can provoke some more interesting discussion by bringing up examples any of you know of where you felt the local government applied conditions unfairly (based on the taxable value of the development or for other reasons) . . . that should open a sizable can of worms and get things going . . .

  5. How sanitary are snow banks?

  6. if its a can of worms you want…

    Lets talk about fire hydrant rental.

    The fire hydrants are technically owned and operated by the water utility, which is techically different that the city. In most communities where this is the case (which is most communties, Wausau included), the city (specifically the fire department) has to pay rent to the water utility for the presence, upkeep and maintenance of the fire hydrants.

    Often this is part of the general tax levy, the city takes some of your property tax dollars and gives them to the water utility as rent, this goes against the fire department budget. However, like many fees as of late, governments have been looking at ways to get these fees off of the taxes. (Tax exempt properties such as churches don’t pay their share of the hydrant rental). So, what is done, is this is moved to your water bill. You now pay the water utility for the hydrants, and not the fire dept.

    The state mandates certain billing formats that can be used. The easiest and therefore the one used most often is size of water meter. How much your fire protection line is on your city of Wausau water bill depends on the size of your water meter. In theory, the bigger the meter, the more you have to protect, and the more you should pay.

    In theory.

    I feel that if this going to be treated this way, it should be based off equalized value. The amount of insurance you pay depends on how much the dollar value of your property is. The more you are trying to protect, the more it costs. And, fire hydrants, that sounds like protection to me.

    Why do I feel that meter sizing isn’t fair? A $200K single family home has 1 x 3/4 water meter and pays X per quarter for fire protection. A very small 4-plex worth $175K is individually metered and has 4 x 3/4 water meters. A property with a lower value is paying 4 times as much.

    As a general rule, I am actually in favor of some traditional general revenue items being moved off the tax rolls and billed as user fees (such as garbage and storm water management)… but if it is done, has to be done in a manner that is fair.

  7. I’m going to leave John’s latest comment hanging for now, but I do want to add to Matthew’s comment before it is lost in the thread because I think it’s a good point and something I hadn’t thought of. If you think of all the sand, grit, and oil that accumulates on the city streets, think also of what all that does to your lawn if you plop it down right next to someone’s yard. I would guess it would look pretty bare come spring (and thereby make adjacent lots undesirable).

  8. John’s comment is interesting and I can see some validity to it, but in addition to value, it seems like relative risk is a legitimate item to weigh into the equation. A 4-plex may have four kitchens. Since cooking is the leading cause of home fires, the risk of fire would seem greater. Heating equipment is the leading cause of fire during the months of December, January and February. Again, there may be multiple separate systems involved in a 4-plex. In either example, the risk is unrelated to value and it could be argued that a more costly multiplex may have more up to date equipment and protection factors that actually mitigate some of the risk.

    I’m not debating your point, but merely pointing out that it could probably be debated. As a practical matter, the present system may have as much to do with ease of administration as anything else. Likewise, there are many costs included in property taxes that are either not very closely related to value or totally unrelated.

  9. I think John’s comments begin to enter the area similar to that of progressive, regressive, and flat taxes. Hmm, that’s a good topic that could have its own subject heading. I would be interested in seeing more discussion on utilities, John – maybe your next post?

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