New courses being charted for St. Croix, Mississippi

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 22, 2013 - 10:12 PM

The two different sets of rules guiding development and protecting these two important waterways are facing major changes.

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The meeting of the Mississippi and the St. Croix rivers, 2013

Photo: Metropolitan Design Center Image Bank ©Regents of the University of Minnesota,

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The two great rivers are hardly twins — that’s obvious where they come together near Hastings, where the clear waters of the St. Croix merge with the mocha-tinted murk of the Mississippi. Despite the contrast, though, both have helped define the geography, economy and the history of the Twin Cities.

Now their respective futures, coincidentally, have also arrived at a pivot point.

For the first time since the 1970s, the two different sets of rules guiding development and protecting these two important waterways are facing major changes.

In the case of the Mississippi, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is in the early stages of updating and rewriting regulations over development dating from 1979 along the 72 miles of river that wind through the Twin Cities, from Hastings in the southeast, through both downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis, to Dayton in the northwest.

On the St. Croix, meanwhile, a large shadow has been cast over future development decisions along the river. The city of Lakeland last month dealt the DNR its first setback since the state Supreme Court ruled three years ago that the agency did not have the authority it had presumed it had to overrule local zoning decisions in cases where they did not comply with the landmark Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1972.

The rules governing the rivers reflect their different characters, said Molly Shodeen, area hydrologist with the DNR. The Mississippi is an important transitway, for example. “A working river is not the same as a Wild and Scenic river, but it still has very high value,” she said, and the rules are designed to balance the interests of both economic development and the environment.

“It’s never been the DNR’s goal to return the rivers to how they were 3,000 years ago,” she said.

The stretch of the Mississippi through the Twin Cities was designated by then-Gov. Al Quie as a “Corridor Critical Area” under an executive order, a type of state regulation that is both problematic and outdated, said Dan Petrik, land-use specialist with the DNR. “The executive order looked at the river as it was 35 years ago,” he said. The new rules are being developed to reflect how the river has evolved, and give the state agency stronger and clearer legal authority.

The latest effort revives one that faltered in 2011 after the DNR couldn’t reach a consensus with the 21 cities, five counties and four townships in the corridor by a deadline set by the Legislature. A progress report is due to the Legislature in January, and it is hoped the rules will be in place by the end of 2014.

Mississippi issues

The rules drafted in 2011 — covering complex but vital topics such as building height and setbacks from the river bluff — were the starting point for discussion with leaders in each of those 30 communities. Those discussions have been completed, Petrik said. Based on feedback, the rules are being revised.

“In many ways, the Mississippi is more challenging to regulate, because it has so many uses as you move along the corridor,” Petrik said. “The St. Croix has more consistent land uses.”

The rules, which cover about a quarter-mile from either side of the Mississippi, are attempting to reflect the complexity of those differences, Petrik said. The plan identifies half a dozen distinctive districts in the corridor, divided along urban, rural and commercial/industrial lines.

“They’re in a tough spot. They’re trying to balance multiple, different interests here,” said Minneapolis attorney Troy Gilchrist, who represents Denmark Township, unique in that it is bordered by both rivers. “No matter what they do, somebody’s not going to be happy.”

Among its concerns, Denmark Township has questioned whether the DNR has the authority to rewrite the rules. In Ravenna Township, near Hastings, and in Grey Cloud Island Township, near Cottage Grove, officials raised concerns that the new rules will create properties that don’t conform with zoning rules, making them difficult to sell, alter or refinance.

In St. Paul, nearly 1,000 buildings, and hundreds more yards and gardens, would be affected by proposed “slope protection zones” designed to prevent erosion. “Such over-the-top regulation makes no practical sense and is unjustified,” the city’s comments say, and there are less intrusive ways of protecting the slopes.

Petrik said those are the types of issues that will be addressed when the new draft of the rules is complete.

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