The Department of Natural Resources is finding once more that making rules involving the Mississippi River can be as treacherous as navigating the waterway's St. Anthony Falls during the spring runoff.
At issue are proposals the DNR is revising to regulate development along the Twin Cities stretch of the river. The aim is to create consistent, minimum standards to replace a hodgepodge of outdated gubernatorial executive orders and city shoreline ordinances.
It hasn't been easy. The process began about five years ago, encountered local resistance, and then stalled in 2011 before being revived last year. Now, the National Park Service and others say the DNR is proposing revisions that weaken the preservation standards originally drafted. The agency intends to have the revised proposals ready for a public comment period by June.
As directed by the Legislature, the DNR has been seeking local input since last summer from the 25 municipalities and five counties along the 72-mile stretch of river from Hastings to Dayton. The corridor is a national park called the Mississippi National River Recreation Area, which the DNR is charged with protecting.
While riverfront cities seemed fairly amenable to the revised rules at a recent DNR meeting, environmentalists and the Park Service are decidedly not.
More than 1,500 Minnesotans have signed a petition prepared by Friends of the Mississippi River that will ask the DNR commissioner and Gov. Mark Dayton to strengthen standards to preserve scenic views and other river resources. After a judge's review, Dayton must approve or veto the new rules.
"We were hoping that the state would take a big-picture, long-term approach," said Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the long, narrow national park. "It is taking a couple steps back in our mind and makes it more difficult to keep the river protected."
During the initial rule-making effort that was launched in 2009, local officials protested that the DNR didn't adequately consider their concerns. The renewed attempt, funded last spring by a $100,000 appropriation from the Legislature, directed the agency to consult with local governments and respond to their concerns.
Labovitz said more robust draft rules are needed because rules "tend to get weaker through the public process." He noted that when the river recreation area was authorized in 1988, the Park Service agreed to entrust the DNR with protecting water quality, views and other river resources.
DNR chief hails rules
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the revised rules are far better than the outdated executive order and local ordinances that now regulate development and other riverfront changes. They "give us much more clear criteria on what the cities are supposed to do" in enforcing zoning regulations along the river, he said.
He acknowledged that both cities and environmentalists "have concerns and are suspicious about what is in there [revised rules] and might come out."
Some local officials and residents fear that the new rules could restrict permitted land uses and improvements and hurt property values. One revision would allow cities to let nonconforming homes or buildings be expanded without a variance request as long as they don't extend any closer to the river.
DNR officials discussed the revisions at meetings this month in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
"I hope you feel you have been listened to," Landwehr told city officials at the St. Paul meeting hosted by Metro Cities and the League of Minnesota Cities. He said his agency tries to balance protection of river resources with concerns of cities, property owners and others.
"We have incorporated a lot of the feedback you have provided," he said. "We know that not everybody will be happy. We have tried to balance competing interests and find something that everybody can live with."
After the meeting, Coon Rapids City Council Member Jerry Koch said: "I would prefer local control, but they [DNR] are doing an excellent job of paying attention to local government."
However, after reviewing 61 pages of revised draft rules, one leading environmental group has serious concerns.
"The DNR has made pretty much all the changes the cities wanted," said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi, which has 1,700 members. "When regulated parties [cities] are writing the rules, that's unfortunate … For the state to abdicate their responsibilities for scenic protections is unacceptable."
"The environmental community is pretty united on this," Clark said. "Many organizations are concerned."
Landwehr maintained that the draft rules on scenic vistas are improved. He said the existing regulations set a subjective standard for vistas that is hard to enforce. The revised rules would provide more objective criteria by asking cities to identify scenic vistas using National Park Service protocols.
"We think this is a good way to identify what constitutes a scenic vista," Landwehr said. "We are absolutely committed to protecting the [river] resources and the best way to do that is having rules in place that cities can implement."
Clark countered that while the revised rules encourage cities to identify scenic vistas, they don't require protection of the vistas. He said the proposed rules also have "flexibility provisions" that permit a city to adopt an ordinance that doesn't comply with the rules if they obtain written approval from the DNR commissioner.
The DNR will respond to public comments, make changes to the revised rules as needed, and send them to an administrative law judge. The judge will review public comments and the proposed rules and make a final recommendation to the DNR and governor. If Dayton approves, the rules would become law next year.