DNR land-use rules draw concerns along the Mississippi riverfront

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 11:49 PM

Cities, developers, environmentalists at odds over land use in metro area.

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St. Paul riverfront.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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A renewed attempt to revamp land-use rules along the stretch of the Mississippi River that runs through the Twin Cities area is once again pitting cities and development interests against environmental concerns.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is about halfway through a two-year process that jump-started an earlier attempt to set the rules that would affect 21 cities, five counties and four townships along a 72-mile stretch of river from Dayton to Hastings.

The effort has two purposes: formalize into law rules that were created by executive orders in the late 1970s by Govs. Wendell Anderson and Al Quie, and update those rules to reflect the changes that have taken place along the river.

The first attempt to do that fizzled in 2011 as differing interests clashed. The DNR, hoping things go smoother this time, is asking the public to weigh in on a new draft of the rules at meetings this month.

In St. Paul, which has ambitious plans for redeveloping its downtown riverfront, the proposed rules and the process are raising alarms, said Matt Kramer, president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. The city’s plans include the likely demolition of the former Ramsey County jail and West Publishing complex.

Almost 2,000 buildings and nearly 3,000 parcels of land in the city would come under new construction limits near bluffs and steep slopes along the river.

“One of my concerns with the whole process is that it’s been much more informal than the last time through; the DNR seems to be just kind of moving along on this,” Kramer said. “But wait a sec — this is a significant economic impact.”

Under the proposed rules, the redevelopment of the West site, for example, probably would require a variance, he said. “And who knows if that variance will be granted?”

Existing buildings could be affected, too, because any alterations or expansion would require approval and could be restricted by new limits.

Local governments also would be encumbered with the cost of rewriting their local zoning ordinances, training staff, enforcing the regulations and adjudicating disputes.

“This imposes significant costs on every community in the river corridor,” Kramer said.

The city, chamber, St. Paul Port Authority and Ramsey County plan to meet jointly and soon with DNR officials to present their concerns formally, he said.

River advocates worried

Meanwhile, the Friends of the Mississippi River, the chief environmental advocate for the waterway, has major concerns of its own, said Whitney Clark, the group’s executive director.

In developing the draft, the DNR has spent months meeting with officials in every community affected by the rules. One result was a “flexibility provision” that would allow cities to rewrite local zoning ordinances that don’t fully comply with the rules in certain cases.

“That’s just not acceptable,” Clark said. “Why have a rule that says, ‘You have to follow these rules unless you don’t want to, then maybe we’ll let you break them?’ ”

The draft also allows the DNR to change boundaries of land-use districts created by the rules, opening up a slippery slope that could expose the river to development where it was never intended, he said.

The rules weaken scenic protections by allowing taller buildings along the river, including some of its most beautiful stretches: the gorge near the University of Minnesota, West Side Flats, Pine Bend Bluffs in Inver Grove Heights and the bluff lands of eastern Dakota and southern Washington counties.

  • DNR listening sessions

    The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will hold three public information meetings in July to present information and receive comments on proposed rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. The meetings will run from 6:30 to 9 p.m.:

    • July 16, Greenhaven Golf Course, 2800 Greenhaven Road, Anoka.

    • July 22, Nova Classical Academy, 1455 Victoria Way W., St. Paul.

    • July 24, Schaar’s Bluff Gathering Center (Spring Lake Park Reserve), 8395 127th St. E., Hastings.

    Each meeting will include a presentation and discussion scheduled from 7 to 8 p.m. and opportunities to visit with DNR staff the rest of the time.

    The DNR will accept comments on its working draft of rules through Aug. 15. The comment period is intended to gather feedback on the draft rules before they are revised and proposed for formal rule adoption.

    More information is available on the DNR’s project website at www.dnr.state.mn.us/input/rules/mrcca/index.html.

    Jim Anderson

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