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Duluth proposes landlords replace gravel backyard lots

Controversial proposed changes in Duluth's parking requirements for rental housing soon will be heading to the City Council for consideration.

The ordinance focuses largely on restricting the parking of vehicles in front yards, but it's the new rules the city would impose on backyard parking that have been causing the biggest stir with local landlords.

If amended as proposed, the ordinance would require rental property owners to provide paved backyard parking for tenants, instead of gravel lots.

Pam Dahlberg, who owns and operates several rental properties in Duluth, said she is troubled to see how the reach of the proposed parking ordinance continues to grow beyond front-yard parking.

"We have some people — not very many — but some obstructionists who complain about everything. And they started complaining about rear-yard parking and drainage, too," she said.

Adam Fulton, manager of the city's community planning division, explained the rationale for more stable surfaces, saying: "There are severe erosion problems in certain instances. You know our city is built on a hill, and so where you have a gravel parking lot that's on a steep grade, you tend to have fairly intense erosion problems. That's been a concern that we've received a number of complaints about."

Barbara Montee, president of the Duluth Landlord Association, said city staff tacked the paving requirement onto the proposed ordinance at the last minute and failed to consult properly with rental property owners before doing so.

"It came out of the front-yard parking issue, and they just slipped the paving in at the very end. So I'm disappointed with that," she said.

But Richard Hudelson, who lives a few doors down from a rental property on East Fifth Street, supports the city's efforts to regulate rental parking. He said almost the entire backyard of the rental home on his block was recently converted to parking. But come this spring, almost all the gravel had washed off of the makeshift lot.

"This is my main problem: Where did that gravel go? I think it went into the city storm drains, and that's not good," he said.

Dahlberg acknowledged there have been a few instances of landlords not properly maintaining backyard parking in sloped areas prone to washout.

"That's an individual issue. It should not be mandated and added to the ordinance. It's not right that because somebody's not taking care of their parking place that everyone else should have the additional expense of adding blacktop, when gravel is perfectly satisfactory, as long as it's taken care of," she said.

Dahlberg noted that landlords would face not just the one-time cost of paving their parking areas, but also the ongoing cost of sealing and repairing pavement.

"This adds to the cost of what landlords will be having to charge their tenants when we're looking for more affordable housing instead of making it much less affordable," she said.

Montee said she's heard landlords can expect to pay an estimated $1,000 for every paved parking spot they're asked to create.

But Fulton said there's an ongoing cost associated with ignoring erosion problems, as well.

"It lands in catch basins for the most part. So catch basins get filled up. We inspect those yearly, and we have to go out there with a vac truck from our public works department and vacuum out those catch basins. That takes a substantial amount of labor. So this ends up being a cost for all the people in our city," he said.

Hudelson also questioned the wisdom of allowing landlords to maintain the parking status quo.

"That actually will impose a tax burden on everyone else to deal with the storm system. So when they (landlords) say they can't afford it, what they mean is that they want to pass the cost on to taxpayers, instead of paying it themselves," he said.

Dahlberg suggested the city not rush into a new paving requirement.

"My thought was that they should put this part on hold until they have some studies that show us the impact of blacktop versus class 5 gravel, and put in some kind of wording that says: If you're going to stay with class 5 gravel that the people who don't maintain it will be fined. That should take care of the problem," she said.

At 6:15 p.m. Monday, city councilors will discuss the prospective ordinance in detail at a committee-of-the-whole meeting, but it won't be ready for a vote until June 12, at the earliest.

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