From the redevelopment of the Ford assembly plant site to the urban village at West Side Flats, St. Paul has big plans for the land along the Mississippi River.
But a set of land-use and environmental rules the Department of Natural Resources is proposing could crimp those projects. On Wednesday, St. Paul staff suggested the city advocate for less stringent restrictions on where and what the city can build by the river.
Environmental advocates said they are disappointed by the push for leniency.
“We continue to be amazed that the city of St. Paul — with so much river shore land and bluff land, and a city that derives so much public value from the river — would try so aggressively to weaken these protections,” said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River.
The DNR is juggling environmental and development interests as it creates rules to protect the 72 miles of land that make up the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. The rules would shape land use in 25 metro-area municipalities, from Ramsey to Hastings.
Officials and advocates say St. Paul is the center of a controversy over the rules. With about 20 percent of the city’s land located in the critical area, St. Paul faces the greatest potential effect from the new rules, Planning and Economic Development Director Jonathan Sage-Martinson said.
The next two months are key for cities and groups that want to change the DNR’s proposed rules. State officials are holding hearings on the rules in June, and the deadline to submit comments is July 6. The comment period and public hearings follow an approximately five-year process of “intense public engagement,” DNR land use specialist Dan Petrik said. The rules evolved over that time and could change through this final input process, Petrik said.
“But,” he said, “I think we’ve got a good package that already represents a good compromise among the different interests.”
But Wednesday’s St. Paul City Council meeting showed concerns still exist on both sides of the aisle.
Some attendees advocated for less regulation on development. Others urged the city not to support increased leniency, and noted that they were already concerned about the DNR’s plan to change building height restrictions from 40 feet to 65 feet in some areas.
In a letter to the City Council, staff members said the DNR’s rules on building height limits were unclear and that “unnecessarily limiting building heights may hamper appropriate development in the [Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area] and make it more difficult to achieve vibrant urban neighborhoods in St. Paul.”
Petrik said that the city could still add taller buildings under the proposed rules, they just need to get a conditional-use permit and go through a public hearing.
Another point of contention was whether buildings should be allowed on certain areas that slope down to the river.
The DNR plans to limit development in such areas to protect the stability of the slopes and prevent buildings from cutting off views of the river. But city staff said it is possible to meet those goals without banning development on slopes.
St. Paul officials are also considering recommending that the DNR create an urban parkland district land designation. Under the proposed rules, there are six types of districts with different regulations. Parks would fall under rural and open space district. The city wants more specificity for parkland, “rather than trying to lump it in with a bunch of other land uses,” senior planner Josh Williams said.
That change could derail the rule-making process, Clark said. It would require the DNR to reassess all 72 miles of the river corridor and could drag out the process for several more years, Clark said. And while the Friends of the Mississippi River does have some qualms with the DNR’s proposed plan, he said, “In general, we believe the rules are a step in the right direction.”
The St. Paul City Council opted Wednesday to gather more feedback on the situation and will decide how to proceed on June 22.