Grey Cloud Island Township is part of the Twin Cities, but you wouldn't know it by its rustic, wild beauty, bound by the Mississippi River where it makes a majestic bend northward to St. Paul.
The 300 or so residents are fiercely protective of their secluded world surrounded by suburbia — and of the beloved river that defines their unique community.
But changes under rules being proposed by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for managing land in the township and 29 other Twin Cities communities along the river have jolted that idyll, and Dick Adams, longtime chairman of the Township Board, isn't standing for it.
It's the same type of hostile reception that greeted the DNR's last foray into the hot-button issue of land-use regulation, which ended in discord two years ago when a deadline passed before the rules were finalized. The agency then, as now, is trying to write a set of clear and updated rules for the 72-mile stretch of river from Hastings north to Dayton called the Mississippi Corridor Critical Area. It also covers 1,500 feet on either side of the river, just more than a quarter mile.
The rulemaking effort was jump-started by the 2013 Legislature in the Legacy bill. The DNR has begun an informal process — soon to become more public and formal involving landowners, communities, groups and businesses — of drawing together all parties who are affected by the rules.
At least in Grey Cloud Island Township, it's clear there is lingering wariness from the last effort, which fizzled in 2011.
Adams said most property in the township would be considered "nonconforming" under the draft rules because lot size frontage along the township's few public roads wouldn't meet the new standard. Nonconforming properties carry restrictions in how they can be expanded, and that affects their value and attractiveness to potential buyers.
"I was at the first big kickoff meeting of the DNR to talk about this," Adams said. "One of the largest complaints I heard from municipalities were over 'nonconformity' issues."
The DNR sought to allay those concerns, but Adams wasn't buying it. "I'm very personally upset over that," he said. " … It damn sure is a big deal."
Adams said his concern is such that, if the DNR pushes those rules on his township, he will ask Washington County to file a lawsuit blocking them, since the county has overall authority over the township's land-use regulations. If the county doesn't file suit, he would urge the township to do so. "I will insist on it," he said.
"My overall feeling is, don't do what you did last time," Adams said of the DNR. "Do something that's more user-friendly.
"I perceive this is going to be another big battle," he said.
At the north end of the corridor, in Dayton, where the Mississippi forms the northern border and the Crow River the west, Mayor Tim McNeil has similar concerns. Like residents in Grey Cloud Island, he said, people in Dayton care deeply about the river that defines their community.
"Generally speaking, I think there's a philosophical concern whenever you have a body that is not local regulating local matters," he said.
Proposed rules in the past have been particularly onerous over areas along the river that have not been developed as opposed to areas that are developed, McNeil said. For cities like Dayton that aspire to foster development — and expand their tax base — along the river to take advantage of its scenery, "that puts us at an extreme disadvantage versus our neighbors."
McNeil said a good approach to the new rules would allow flexibility for local governments to "not dictate every jot and tittle" in local zoning ordinances and should include giving those municipalities the resources they need to achieve the goal of protecting the river.
A listening process
The DNR is listening, and the key process of gathering opinions will shift to a more formal effort this fall.
"There was definitely controversy the last time we did this," said Dan Petrik, land-use specialist with the DNR, referring to similar legislation passed in 2009 that launched the first rule-making effort for the river corridor, but ended when it became mired in contentiousness before it could be completed by an 18-month deadline. An effort to repeal the rule-making law failed in 2011.
This time, there is no deadline. While the new effort will be deliberative in order to involve as many interests as possible, Petrik said that doesn't mean the process will be dragged out. For one thing, a progress report must be prepared for the 2014 Legislature. For another, the rules drafted from the original process offer a starting point for the new effort. And the $100,000 budget is limited.
"Our main goal is to protect the river as it is," Petrik said, while recognizing that the river has different purposes in each community. For that reason, the rules — which only cover land use in the 21 cities, five counties and four townships, not the water — would identify seven distinct districts in the corridor, reflecting differing purposes of the river.
The rulemaking effort hearkens back to an executive order signed by then-Gov. Al Quie in 1979. The corridor had been designated a "State Critical Area" three years before, and the corridor was designated part of the National Park Service in 1988.
Operating under a governor's executive order that is nearly 35 years old presents difficulties, Petrik said, and more importantly, does not protect the river as it should. The river has changed in those decades, as have communities around it.
"The opportunity with this rulemaking process is to recognize the reality of those changes," said state Rep Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who carried the bill both in 2009 and in the last session. "I believe it's better to have an updated, scientifically based set of rules reflecting the reality of 2013 instead of an executive order from 1979."
Local zoning ordinances in the corridor, he added, already must adhere to that old executive order just as they would with the new rules. And the process, approved in 2009 by a Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, and now a Democrat, Mark Dayton, is designed to give local communities a voice in how they are formed.
Fears are unfounded
Hansen recognizes that, for some, any regulations are unacceptable, but added that the drama and apprehension are misplaced. For some communities, the new rules will actually open areas to development.
"For us as an organization, some [municipalities] are very concerned, but some are ready for new opportunities they've been waiting 40 years for because their situation has changed," agreed Todd Olson, government relations specialist with Metro Cities, an organization representing Twin Cities communities. That mix of reactions is why the group is not advocating for or against the rules. "Our role is to make sure the process is fair," Olson said. "We just want to make sure every city gets heard."
Even the Friends of the Mississippi River, a group dedicated to protecting the river, disagrees with some specifics in the draft rules. But updating regulations is long overdue, said Irene Jones, the group's river corridor program coordinator.
"I actually think that most community members agree that the river is an asset, and that it's important that we protect it," she said. "And it's important for the state to define what those regulations are."