Cities along the Mississippi River are squawking much less about the state’s second attempt to create new rules for development and preservation along the 72-mile river corridor from Dayton to Hastings.
At a recent meeting with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), local officials in attendance generally gave positive ratings to the agency.
The DNR has been conferring since July with the 25 cities and townships and five counties along the Mississippi National River Recreation Area.
The aim of the rulemaking effort, like the one that stalled in 2011, is to create consistent, minimum standards to replace the hodgepodge of outdated gubernatorial executive orders and city shoreline ordinances for uses and development along the river. The DNR is charged with protecting water quality and other river resources.
The first effort ran into strong opposition from local officials who protested that the DNR didn’t give enough consideration to their concerns. The new attempt, funded by a $100,000 appropriation from the Legislature this year, has been viewed as “a chance to hit the restart button,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said at a meeting in July.
At the recent meeting at the League of Minnesota Cities building in St. Paul, 42 elected and appointed officials used handheld clickers to vote on rules options presented on overhead slides.
Asked whether they were satisfied with their involvement, 45 percent clicked “very satisfied” and 43 percent hit “somewhat satisfied.”
The meeting was much mellower than one in July at which largely the same group had listened as DNR staff members explained their plan to resume the rulemaking process, using the draft rules from the previous effort as a starting point.
At that meeting, some locals had called for a completely fresh start. Their verbal jabs reflected a hostility toward the DNR for seeking to impose rules on local property owners. Some landowners said they feared that once rules were drafted, their riverside lots would be nonconforming, reducing their sale value.
At the more recent meeting, similar concerns were evident. Participants consistently clicked on options that included relying on local zoning to decide building heights, lot sizes and other matters.
“It was fun to see the polling and how the cities spoke in a unified voice that local government control is better than having the state tell us what we can and cannot do,” said Anoka City Council Member Jeff Weaver, who lives on the river.
“It appears now that the rule changing is working in a fair manner,” said Dan Ryan, a Brooklyn Center Council Member. “There’s a lot of very complex zoning issues.”
Commissioner Landwehr told the city leaders at the meeting that their feedback would be reflected in the rules the DNR is revising.
Local officials will be asked to comment on the proposals, “to be sure we are on the right track,” he said.
The DNR’s initial goal, to adopt new rules by next September, will be delayed three or four months to ensure enough time for feedback that Landwehr hopes will lead to broad support for what emerges.
Minimums by district
The first stab at rulemaking began in 2009 and involved 18 months of meetings with interested parties and many rules revisions. It ultimately stalled because the DNR missed a January 2011 legislative deadline to publish a notice of intent to adopt rules. The agency said it ran out of time to thoroughly evaluate the voluminous, wide-ranging public input.
In the current effort, the DNR plans to create six or seven corridor districts, based on existing commercial, residential, recreational and other uses.
The rules would set minimum standards for each district on matters such as building heights and how close structures could be built to river bluff lines.
The rules are aimed at protecting riverbank plants and features; water quality; and scenic views — and balancing various uses.
“We need rules that are more amenable to local governments,” Landwehr said afterward. He noted that the Legislature has reduced his agency’s enforcement powers to suing a city that approves a variance that conflicts with state river rules.
“Our goal is to create something that is good and it works,” he said.