Many cities and residents along the Mississippi River, from Hastings to Dayton, fear they will have less control over their property and development along the river under a pair of bills moving toward passage at the State Capitol.
At least six cities -- Lilydale, Mendota, Coon Rapids, Champlin, Anoka and Ramsey -- have adopted resolutions or sent letters to legislators opposing the bills. Most of the resolutions say the bills ignore property-owner rights and could give the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) more control over local zoning.
The bills, expected to pass in some form, direct the DNR to adopt new rules for development along a 72-mile stretch of the river covering 21 cities and four townships in five counties. The area is governed under the Mississippi critical area program, adopted to protect the corridor in the 1970s, and overseen by the DNR.
The legislation "is supposed to be striking a balance between the state's interest in protecting the long-term health of this statewide [river] resource and the local interest in having local authority over land use," said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, the lead bill sponsor.
He said the new rules would create more districts with specific features than the current four general districts, and permitted land uses would be tailored to preserving river features such as bluffs, scenic views and wetlands.
The mayors of Hastings and Mendota Heights said that their cities already do a good job of preserving the Mississippi because they live by it, and that new rules aren't needed.
"Additional regulations from St. Paul are not very helpful," said Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks.
This spring, the Riverside Community Coalition, a riverfront homeowners group, distributed hundreds of fliers urging north metro-area homeowners and cities to oppose the bills.
"We want our homeowner rights," said coalition leader Rick Townsend-Anderson, 62, who lives along the river in Brooklyn Park. He said he now can make improvements and even rebuild his house on the existing footprint, 50 feet from the river, without needing a variance. He fears that would change if the DNR adopted stricter rules.
But others, including developers, legislators and environmentalists, think the critical area program needs updating to clarify the rules that are partly in state law but mostly in a complex 1979 governor's executive order. The order aims to protect river water quality, historic sites and other features.
The DNR has taken no position on the legislation. If new rules are created, the DNR would approve new city ordinances and zoning if they comply with new rules, as the agency does now, said Rebecca Wooden, a DNR land use supervisor in the waters division. But cities would continue to have final say on zoning variances, she said.
Land-use attorney Jay Lindgren, a former Metropolitan Council administrator, said he thinks the legislation is "a step toward more statewide control of zoning issues'' that will force cities to pass stricter zoning.
Chief bill authors Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, and Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, say they have modified their bills to allay city and homeowner concerns. The changes include directing the DNR to "consider municipal ordinances" when establishing standards for new river districts that will be based on features such as slopes and bluffs.
Townsend-Anderson and some cities doubt the word "consider" will protect their interests and want the legislation to limit what the new rules can do.
"That's the rub," said Pierre Willette, a lobbyist for Minneapolis. "It's what you trust will be handled in rulemaking and what you want in the law before they start making rules."
Hansen said the bills, which haven't yet reached either chamber's floor for a vote, have a good chance of passage, after which they would be combined. League of Minnesota Cities lobbyist Craig Johnson, who tracks the bills, thinks "some version of [the legislation] will be passed."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty who could veto the measure, has some concerns, said his spokesman, Brian McClung, but "we haven't reached a final verdict on it."
Many cities, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, are more comfortable with the current system than with taking a chance on unknown new rules.
Twenty-seven percent of St. Paul lies in the river critical area, said Cecile Bedor, St. Paul's planning and economic development director. She added:
"We have concerns about the potential for unintended consequences of the bill that could take away the city's right to do land-use zoning."
Jim Adams • 612-673-7658