Cities would have greater powers to challenge the Metropolitan Council’s regional plans under measures tucked into the bonding bill that was approved by the Legislature on Sunday.
The regional government’s lobbying staff was surprised by the last-minute additions, which stem partly from a conflict over land use in northern Anoka County. They are among the few policy provisions in the bonding bill, which is now in the hands of Gov. Mark Dayton, a DFLer who appoints the Met Council members.
One change would allow cities to have an administrative law judge or the council’s land use panel consider the “need for or reasonableness” of the council’s plans, or parts of them, for the seven-county metro area. Another change gives the rural city of Nowthen unprecedented authority over the council’s plans for its future.
“That is really creating a new approach to comprehensive planning,” Met Council lobbyist Judd Schetnan told the council Wednesday, referring to the Nowthen change. “I don’t know if you can even call it that at this point, if the council has to just basically approve what’s going on there.”
Metro cities occasionally bristle at the council’s authority to guide their growth, and the bonding bill marks the latest effort for local governments to gain some leverage against the powerful regional government.
The changes follow a recent disagreement over development patterns between the council and the city of Oak Grove, which adjoins Nowthen. Oak Grove’s leaders want to allow new homes on 2.5-acre lots in one corner of their community. But council staff said that area should remain largely rural, so it could accommodate denser housing connected to the sewer system in the future.
Oak Grove challenged the council’s designation in front of an administrative law judge, but lost because state law bars the judge from considering the reasonableness of the council’s plans. The city won a special carve-out last year for its land, but the change in the bonding bill modifies the process for future challenges.
Both Oak Grove and Nowthen are in House Speaker Kurt Daudt’s district. Daudt, R-Crown, said Nowthen had requested a change similar to what Oak Grove secured in 2017. He said the broader planning change corrected language that was inserted into last year’s transportation bill.
“It basically just allows [cities] to have some level of recourse if they don’t like what the Met Council is doing,” Daudt said.
Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin, who pushed for the change, said people should be able to present competing arguments to a judge for review.
“The language that’s in law right now says, ‘No, once the Met Council makes a decision, it’s final. Too bad, so sad. We’re the powerful ones,’ ” Korin said. “And that’s not right. That’s just absolutely wrong.”
Lisa Barajas, the Met Council’s manager of local planning assistance, said the provisions would undermine the regional planning process. She said there is ample debate over the reasonableness of the council’s plans while they are being drafted, a process that is more transparent and allows for competing voices to be heard.
“The provision regarding hearings restricts the transparency of the planning process by allowing a local government to argue the reasonableness of a plan without the input of other affected communities,” Barajas said in a statement.
Barajas added that opinions from the administrative law judge and the land use panel are recommendations to the council — and not binding.
Six cities in the last round of long-term planning challenged the document that explains how they are affected by the regional plans, the council said, and five settled via “staff clarification” or a formal agreement with the council. Oak Grove was the only one to request a hearing.
The bonding bill’s language about Nowthen, a city of 4,500 people, says the Met Council must change regional plans for Nowthen to “implement any changes requested by the city” relating to its land designation, which guides what density it should have. The council says there is no precedent giving a city such broad discretion.
“The [change] would provide that community a blank check irrespective of the costs or impacts to other metropolitan communities or to the region as a whole,” Barajas said.
Nowthen Mayor Jeff Pilon said they wanted to clarify that no portion of the city is within the Met Council’s long-term sewer plan, which would impose limitations on what could be built there. The city had previously been included in the long-term sewer area, he said.
Beyond that, Pilon said the city was not pursuing a particular change.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good relationship with the council,” Pilon said.