Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik on Feb. 21 shared details of the city’s revised street closure policy for larger public events, which may require organizers to fill out applications. The fire chief told council members the goal of the updated policy is to provide a safe environment for all attendees and event holders.
“I think sometimes what people don’t realize is, as an organizer of a larger event where you’re going to have people that are going to be operating in enclosed conditions or in closed streets or they’re going to be operating on the public right-of-ways, there is liability that comes with that,” he said at a recent staff report.
Minimizing liability exposure to the city is another reason staff wanted to revise the policy, which is still in its draft form and is not yet up for council approval. Some big events can carry liability towards the city if something goes wrong. Wellik cited a number of past events inside and outside of Iowa that have gone wrong and why it is important to have such a policy in place.
In 2011, the Indiana State Fair stage collapsed when a wind gust from an approaching storm toppled the roof structure, killing seven people and injuring almost 60 others. Wellik also referenced the November 2021 incident in which a driver allegedly drove his car through a parade route and killed six people.
“Any time you bring people together in tight spaces and they’re operating outside of their normal boundaries of how they operate on roads and so on, we inject that opportunity for something to happen,” Wellik said, also noting that staff would like to limit the impact to transportation in the community when events close streets.
Some occasions would require organizers to request a street closure, which do impede regular traffic. For instance, some streets in town serve as truck routes. When the city decides to close those pathways, staff have to designate new routes and they have to be signed appropriately, Wellik said.
Another aspect of the policy is communication. The city wants to keep all effected parties informed of events in their area. Wellik said staff frequently hear citizens say, “I didn’t know the street was going to be closed” or “I didn’t realize parking was going to not be available during this time.” A revised policy should help.
By filling out an application, too, authorities will have the contact information of organizers. Should something happen during an event, Wellik said public safety officials would be able to get in contact with organizers immediately and carry out contingency plans or mitigate a situation.
The city’s revised policy is intended to target events in excess of 200 people, specifically those that are not contained on private property. Churches that may have larger gatherings on their property, for example, would not be affected unless organizers need use of city right-of-ways.
By having the Iowa Speedway in Newton, Wellik said it has allowed city staff to learn a lot of lessons about how to manage larger scale events.
“We’ve learned some pretty good lessons out there about weather and how it impacts people and how long it takes people to get to shelter and so on,” he said. “Go back to when RAGBRAI was here … We had a storm that moved in and we had to make a decision as it approached. We decided to shut things down.”
It wasn’t a very popular decision, Wellik added, but it is one of those decisions made for the sake of safety. Pre-planning allowed organizers to shuttle people to shelters, at least the ones who chose to take the city up on its offer.
Wellik showed a draft copy of the street closure application, which is intended to be submitted 90 days in advance of the event. If organizers plan greater than 60 days in advance the fee is $25; if it is submitted less than 60 days in advance but still greater than 45 days the fee increases to $100; less than 45 days is $250.
“So there is good incentive here to make sure you’re planning well in advance of these events,” Wellik said.
If the city is given less than 30 days notice for a street closure, Wellik said it is going to be more difficult to plan and it is likely staff would recommend organizers to schedule it for next year. A single application can be submitted for events with multiple dates, such as the Newton Farmers Market or Thunder Nites.
Applications require organizers to submit contact information, start and end times, setup and tear down times, how many people are anticipated to attend and what type of audience they are expecting. Staff also want a map of the event to better understand the impact to the community.
“We want to make sure we’ve got those things identified that need to be completed,” Wellik said.
The city also has a temporary no-parking consent form, which would require organizers to gather signatures from people residing 125 feet from the street closure. Wellik said the city is looking for at least 75 percent approval from the adjacent property owners.
Parking plans will need to be defined, and barricading of streets will have to meet the standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). If not, Wellik said it opens up the city to liability issues. Complex barricading may require organizers to use contractors.
Wellik said the city still wants more input from partner groups and other agencies that are more likely to be affected by the policy. He also stressed the policy’s emphasis on larger events, and not events like block parties – although the city does have a policy for residential block parties.
“None of this really applies to neighborhood block parties, unless you want to close six or eight blocks and do a real knock-down-drag-out where you’re going to affect half the town — that might be a little different,” Wellik said.
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org