DNR wants to revise land-use rules along the Mississippi River

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2013 - 10:18 PM

Some residents are wary of DNR efforts to oversee how land along the Mississippi is used – or not used – as it winds through metro area.

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Dick Adams, supervisor of Grey Cloud Island Township

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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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

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  • New rules over the river

    The 2013 Legislature, as part of the Legacy bill, authorized the DNR to adopt rules in the Mississippi River Critical Core Area. The agency is to:

    • Establish districts within the corridor. This includes determining the number of districts within each municipality; taking into account municipal plans and policies, and existing ordinances and conditions; and considering protection of key resources and features.

    • Establish minimum guidelines and standards for the districts to protect key resources and features and use them when approving plans and regulations and reviewing development permit applications.

    • Consult with local governments before rule adoption (new in 2013).

    • Protect existing commercial, industrial and residential uses (new in 2013).

    • A 2009 requirement mandating preparation of a preliminary bluff map was eliminated in 2013, but protection of bluffs and related features remains a priority.

    effect on Zoning

    The rules set minimum standards for communities in their comprehensive plans, which guide development and land use. The local controls must meet or exceed the standards set in rules, just as they now do under a 1979 executive order, but the rules don’t change the level of local control.

    Timeline

    There is no deadline for finalizing these rules, but the Legislature will get a progress report in January. Dan Petrik, land-use specialist with the DNR, said the agency wants to complete the process by September 2014.

    Jim Anderson

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