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.
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