A renewed attempt to revamp land-use rules along the stretch of the Mississippi River that runs through the Twin Cities area is once again pitting cities and development interests against environmental concerns.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is about halfway through a two-year process that jump-started an earlier attempt to set the rules that would affect 21 cities, five counties and four townships along a 72-mile stretch of river from Dayton to Hastings.
The effort has two purposes: formalize into law rules that were created by executive orders in the late 1970s by Govs. Wendell Anderson and Al Quie, and update those rules to reflect the changes that have taken place along the river.
The first attempt to do that fizzled in 2011 as differing interests clashed. The DNR, hoping things go smoother this time, is asking the public to weigh in on a new draft of the rules at meetings this month.
In St. Paul, which has ambitious plans for redeveloping its downtown riverfront, the proposed rules and the process are raising alarms, said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. The city’s plans include the likely demolition of the former Ramsey County jail and West Publishing complex.
Almost 2,000 buildings and nearly 3,000 parcels of land in the city would come under new construction limits near bluffs and steep slopes along the river.
“One of my concerns with the whole process is that it’s been much more informal than the last time through; the DNR seems to be just kind of moving along on this,” Kramer said. “But wait a sec — this is a significant economic impact.”
Under the proposed rules, the redevelopment of the West site, for example, probably would require a variance, he said. “And who knows if that variance will be granted?”
Existing buildings could be affected, too, because any alterations or expansion would require approval and could be restricted by new limits.
Local governments also would be encumbered with the cost of rewriting their local zoning ordinances, training staff, enforcing the regulations and adjudicating disputes.
“This imposes significant costs on every community in the river corridor,” Kramer said.
The city, chamber, St. Paul Port Authority and Ramsey County plan to meet jointly and soon with DNR officials to present their concerns formally, he said.
River advocates worried
Meanwhile, the Friends of the Mississippi River, the chief environmental advocate for the waterway, has major concerns of its own, said Whitney Clark, the group’s executive director.
In developing the draft, the DNR has spent months meeting with officials in every community affected by the rules. One result was a “flexibility provision” that would allow cities to rewrite local zoning ordinances that don’t fully comply with the rules in certain cases.
“That’s just not acceptable,” Clark said. “Why have a rule that says, ‘You have to follow these rules unless you don’t want to, then maybe we’ll let you break them?’ ”
The draft also allows the DNR to change boundaries of land-use districts created by the rules, opening up a slippery slope that could expose the river to development where it was never intended, he said.
The rules weaken scenic protections by allowing taller buildings along the river, including some of its most beautiful stretches: the gorge near the University of Minnesota, West Side Flats, Pine Bend Bluffs in Inver Grove Heights and the bluff lands of eastern Dakota and southern Washington counties.
Dan Petrik, who is coordinating the project for the DNR, said some of the fears about riverfront properties being classed as “nonconforming” are overblown and based on a misperception of what the new rules will mean. That’s why the agency has gone to great lengths to gather feedback and explain their implications.
The river corridor is also a national park — the Mississippi National River and Recreational Area. For that reason, said John Anfinson, the park’s acting superintendent, the resulting rules should protect what makes the river not just a local and state resource but one with national and even global significance.
“Our job is to help cities on the river to look beyond their own boundaries, to see the bigger picture,” he said. “I get very clearly that locals want to do their own thing — that’s just natural. But the Mississippi River is worthy of high consideration.”
He said the federal agency supports rules that set a high protective standard, are consistently enforced and reflect why the area known as the Mississippi Corridor Critical Area was created.
“If we really believe this is a great river, one of the great rivers of the world, shouldn’t that reflect what we do along it?” Anfinson asked. “Why can’t we have a corridor that celebrates the river and does the right thing by it? The better we do by the river, the better we do by the cities along the river.”