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Addressing highway closure hazards

Semi trucks and passenger vehicles are often backed up for miles

During the May 3 Town of Virden Council Meeting at Tundra Oil & Gas Place, Sgt. Scott Fefchak presented as brief monthly policing report. Council discussed with him ways and means of better managing the closure of the Trans-Canada Highway during winter storms.    

Semi trucks and passenger vehicles are often backed up for miles and parked in both the travelling and passing lanes of the highway. The main service road in the vicinity of the restaurants and gas stations can also become jammed with vehicles on both sides. This leaves little room for first responders to gain access with their emergency vehicles if necessary. The Town’s concerns include the safety of the emergency personnel and their ability to attend to someone in a vehicle needing immediate medical attention or a vehicle catching fire. Should there be sub-zero temperatures as well, a tractor-trailer containing livestock may need to be moved, but be difficult to get to.       

“I did reach out to the provincial government about the possibility of getting a gate at the Saskatchewan border, or in close proximity to it,” Fefchak said. He noted that police in Saskatchewan do not have the authority to close the Trans-Canada Highway, which can compound the problem. 
“They (semis) just keep coming, and it's not helpful. We've got to figure out a way to enforce that a bit better. I think what made it more personal and meaningful for me is when the one guy ran into the back of a sanding truck with a semi. The guy was ticketed, however it's a public safety issue. We can't have that going on when the roads are closed. It's not safe.”    

During the discussion, Coun. Travis Penner noted that improvements to the highway signage would be beneficial, providing advance warning to motorists of the need to leave the highway.    
“They could be giving everybody warnings (of the approaching closure) way back,” he said.  

Coun. Tina Williams called for other emergency agencies to support the Town's efforts to get the matter addressed. 
“It's not just our firefighters, but all firefighters, paid and the volunteers,” she said.  “I think if we had backup letters it would be helpful.”   

Virden’s Chief Administrative Officer Rhonda Stewart and Garth Mitchell, her counterpart at the R.M. of Wallace-Woodworth, have met with Manitoba Infrastructure and the Manitoba Trucking Association to attempt to find a long-term solution. Suggestions include beefed-up signage and legislation to address infractions.      

“Realistically, how do we expect to enforce road closures without gates, short of parking a police officer or emergency services person there,” Fefchak said. “They (truck drivers) are getting paid by the mile. I get it. They're not interested in stopping.”

Stewart thanked police for doing their best to keep the thoroughfare passable during the major storms this past winter.        

Plans call for a resolution to be drafted for submission to the Association of Manitoba Municipalities June District Meeting on June 24. It will be presented to Council at its next meeting on May 17.   

In a related matter, Penner also suggested that Council could endorse a resolution calling on the province to reimburse municipalities for costs incurred to service stranded travellers when the highway is closed.  

In other policing matters:

The Westman Detachment continues to solidify its staffing resources. A new cadet, originally from Gladstone, and an experienced officer from Dauphin are scheduled to arrive during the summer. Members are transferring out to Russell, Powerview and Moosomin, Sask. The staff sergeant and corporal position have not yet been filled. Fefchak noted that with COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the detachment is gearing up for a busier summer season. “From May long to September long is kind of the busy time and after that it usually tapers off,” he said.  

In other business, Council:

    Authorized Mayor Murray Wright to attend a meeting of the AMM Western Caucus with Municipal Affairs Minister Eileen Clarke in Brandon on May 4.

    Coun. Karel Munchinsky received approval to attend a provincial housing conference in Winnipeg on May 6. Munchinsky represents the Town on the board of the Virden Centennial Housing Corporation.  

    Approval was granted to a variation request from Maurice Kernel to construct a detached garage to facilitate storage of his camper trailer. The proposed structure is larger than the maximum 900 square feet allowed under the by-law for a residential two-family zone, and at 14 feet, will have an overhead door taller than the maximum 10 feet permitted. The garage is considered an accessory building, and the variation will increase the maximum footprint from 900 to 1152 square feet. Development Officer Cory Nixon stipulated that the wall of the garage which runs parallel to the southerly property line be designed to meet the Manitoba Building Code for spatial separation between houses.       

During the discussion, Coun. Penner asked Nixon to explain the rationale for the size restriction on overhead doors.   

“Aesthetics is typically the reason,” he said. “Larger doors facing the front street look more industrial than residential, and the bigger the door the bigger the equipment you can park inside. It's a limit placed in the zoning by-law to regulate the appearance and the uses.”
    Les and Jan Martens submitted a conditional use application, seeking approval to rent out their basement suite as an air bnb.   

“We don't define an air bnb in our by-law, so its usage falls under the definition of a bed and breakfast home,” Nixon said. 

It's a conditional use within a residential two-family zone. In response to questioning from Penner, Nixon stated that one additional off-street parking space is required, along with an occupancy permit and fire inspection. Penner asked if the Martens would be restricted from renting out the air bnb while they were on vacation. “As long as the top floor isn't rented out as well and it remains their primary residence,” Nixon said.   

Following the public hearing, Council approved both applications subject to compliance with the conditions set out by Nixon.    

From the committee reports:

    Coun. Whitney Baker reported that the provincial Building Sustainable Communities Fund has increased from $12 million to $25 million. She encouraged people to apply for funding for eligible projects.  

    Lauren Gryschuk has joined the Town staff in the newly created position of Program and Events Coordinator. She is a graduate of Mount Royal University in Calgary and has experience in programming and event planning. Mark Rivard has been hired as a Level 3 Water and Wastewater Plant Operator.    

    Stantec Consulting has applied to Transport Canada for approval to construct the new bridge on Seventh Avenue North and is awaiting approval. This was necessary as Scallion Creek is considered a navigable waterway. The project is still on track to be tendered and constructed during the summer months.  
    The Virden Skate Park is closed and will remain so until further notice to permit landscaping and the installation of lighting to be completed as weather permits.  

    Registration is now open for the position of Head of Council for the municipal election in October. This must be completed before a candidate may accept donations or incur expenditures.  

    Work has commenced on the operational portion of the Strategic Plan presented by Doug Griffiths of 13 Ways Inc. during a public open house on May 2.