— Willmar City Council on Monday, Jan. 9, denied in a split 6-2 vote a licensing agreement with
City Line Towing
to use city-owned property after the towing company put up a fence and moved impounded cars onto the city property without permission.
"Somebody can't just put posts up on city property and put up a fence, and I am flabbergasted by the audacity that someone would do that — who does that? That is city property," said Councilor Julie Asmus.
The land in question, owned by the city, is located under the First Street bridge between U.S. Highway 12 and Benson Avenue. A fence has been constructed under the bridge along U.S. Highway 12 and along Benson Avenue.
Voting in favor of the motion to deny the agreement were Councilors Audrey Nelsen, Vicki Davis, Justin Ask, Mike O'Brien, Carl Shuldes and Asmus. Voting against the motion to deny the agreement were Councilors Rick Fagerlie and Tom Butterfield.
As of the morning of Wednesday, Jan. 11, City Line Towing had removed the cars from the property, but it appeared that more vehicles had been moved onto the property as of Sunday afternoon, according to a West Central Tribune reporter.
It was not a surprise that Jason Butler of City Line Towing wanted to use the land after he approached the council during open forum Sept. 6, 2022, to make that request. He owns the land on either side of the bridge along Benson Avenue.
What was a surprise is that Butler moved forward with his plans without a legal agreement in place, disregarding what he had been told by city staff and the City Council.
At its Dec. 19, 2022, meeting, the council instructed city staff to move forward in developing an agreement. Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker told the council at that meeting that it had been decided that cars would not be stored under the bridge, and the land would be used only as a thoroughfare between Butler's adjacent properties so he would not have to go onto Benson Avenue.
The council voiced concern about potential damage to the bridge — a main thoroughfare through the city — and also wanted more information about the city's liability if Butler were allowed to use the land and the bridge were damaged.
Walker told the council that initially, the city was not interested in pursuing an agreement, being concerned about safety with the storage of vehicles under the bridge.
However, after taking a tour of the property and finding out some of the things that were taking place under the bridge, Walker and other city staff concluded that the area needed a fence — whether installed by the city or Butler.
Butler in September had said the fence) would be solid on both sides. "We would maintain it underneath the bridge. I just wanted to get the ball rolling," he said at that time.
City Operations Director Kyle Box stated during the Jan. 9 meeting that he spoke with Butler regarding the fence and cars on Jan. 5, and Butler told him that nobody from the city had gotten back to him and he was not going to sit around and wait for the city.
Walker said that Butler had asked him about installing the fence posts before winter, but Butler was told he could not do so until an agreement was approved by the council.
"The fence is up, and we very clearly at that last council meeting did not approve it ... I'm not comfortable with this at all — I don't think our questions have been answered," Nelsen said at the Jan. 9 meeting. "It's a mess under there already and it's full and it's not even something we've approved. I'm prepared to say no at this point in time."
Despite the council's reservations, Butler was praised for the improvements he has made to his properties, as well as for cleaning up under the bridge.
Then-Mayor Marv Calvin during the Dec. 19 discussion stated that the property to the east of the bridge has been an "eyesore" since he started with the city in 2000, and that City Line Towing has improved the property to the west of the bridge.
"I want to congratulate the towing service for cleaning up that area. It's not everyone's willing to spend two, three, four hundred thousand dollars and not come to the city and ask for help. It definitely looks better down there," Fagerlie said during the same discussion.
When presenting the draft agreement with City Line Towing at the Jan. 9 meeting, Willmar City Attorney Robert Scott noted that it had been drafted "relatively quickly" for the meeting. He asked that, if approved, the council include authorization for the mayor and city administrator to sign a version of the draft "that is substantially consistent with the draft in your packet," but would allow for any needed changes.
He stated that the agreement is a one-year licensing agreement allowing Butler to use the land for a fee of $20,000. He added that the agreement protects the city's interest, is effective retroactively to Jan. 1, 2023, and includes a requirement that Butler maintains a $2 million general liability insurance policy.
City Administrator Leslie Valiant said the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust had not reviewed the document because it had just been drafted, but the city would have it reviewed for any insurance issues.
Mayor Doug Reese at the Jan. 9 meeting stated, "I don't have any say in this, but I have had a conversation with Mr. Butler. I really appreciate what they have done down there in spiffing up that part of the city ... I'm just not comfortable with it. As much as I appreciate what they are trying to do, I'm just not comfortable with it."