The request for a higher street grade than allowed in Washington subdivision codes sparked a deeper debate on relaxing the codes.

The city’s planning and zoning commission ultimately approved a variance granting higher street grades for the Overlook at Weber Farms Subdivision.

Cameron Lueken, with Wunderlich Surveying & Engineering, requested the variance for three streets in the proposed subdivision.

The street grades of Kuenzel Drive, Shirley Close Road, and Graham Road have a max grade that ranges from 10-12 percent. There are seven streets total in the subdivision

City staff recommended the commission deny the request because the streets are not in compliance with city codes that call for a maximum grade of 10 percent.

Voting in favor of the variance were Tony Gokenbach, Carolyn Witt, Greg Skornia, Tom Holdmeier, Mayor Sandy Lucy, Chuck Watson and Samantha Cerutti Wacker. Commissioner John Borgmann cast the lone dissenting vote. Chuck Watson and Mark Kluesner were not at the meeting.

Lueken was representing the developer Northern Star Loans owned by Vic Hoerstkamp.

He explained the subdivision layout follows a ridge and it would cost an estimated $500,000 to remove rock and add fill along the streets to bring them into compliance.

Lueken added the grades for portions of the proposed streets are now over 12 percent but would be reduced.

“The developer is making a good faith effort,” he said. “There are roads all over town that exceed 10 percent (grade).”

Public Services Director John Nilges noted that there are concerns that city equipment could not adequately treat streets over 10 percent grade. That includes trash trucks and snowplows.

He added the International Fire Code also calls for a 10 percent max grade.

“It’s a decision based upon risk,” Nilges said.

“I don’t have an issue with 11-12 percent,” Skornia commented. “My street is steeper than that for one little section. . . trash trucks and snowplows have no problem.”

Wacker stated approval of the variance could create an unwanted precedent.

“It is a slippery slope. The code has to have meaning,” she said. “I’m confident that the 10 percent is not arbitrary.”

“If we grant this we are going to have this all of the time,” Wacker added. “We should address this problem in a more global way.”

Borgmann noted that a code variance was not granted for a street during the construction of Washington West Elementary School.

He added the commission should adhere to the 10 percent max grade because it is a requirement in both the city and fire codes.

“Setting a ladder truck on a 10 percent (grade) is difficult and 12 percent is nearly impossible,” Borgmann said.

Code Revision

According to Nilges, the planning commission may have approved higher street grades in the past because the plans were “lumped in with the preliminary plats.”

He added that there were no grades included in Overlook at Weber Farms plat approved earlier this year.

“I think it is worth looking into a code revision,” Nilges stated.

Lueken said as the city expands, more farmland is being developed and grade variances will be more prevalent.

“Developers come across this topography and cannot reach the 10 percent (max grade),” he said. “It will increase the purchase price which will be an increase to homeowners,” he said.

Lueken showed a listing of 50 streets in the city that have grades higher than 10 percent.

“It is a topographic condition that exists in town,” he explained. “The city can’t go to the north and to the east, west and south — it is surrounded by hills.”

The Union city code sets a max grade of 10 percent, but the city engineer has the authority to grant up to 12 percent, Lueken added.

“I don’t know if 10 percent is right for our community,” stated Holdmeier.

The first aerial topographic survey of the area was conducted, Lueken added. Another was done in 2004. Developers use that information to determine subdivision layout and make other determinations.

“That provided very accurate contours,” Lueken said.

Prior to that there was no elevation survey easily available.

Wacker made a motion that city staff prepare a code revision addressing higher street grades. It was approved 7-0.