A Hennepin County judge has again ruled Minneapolis must immediately cease implementation of its 2040 comprehensive plan, which has been in effect for the past three years. The city now has 60 days to revert back to its 2030 Plan, according to the order. The city has said it might appeal.
"This court finds that any ongoing implementation of the residential development portions of the City's 2040 Plan is an ongoing violation of [the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act]," wrote Judge Joseph Klein, who has been presiding over an environmental lawsuit challenging the city's pro-development ambitions since 2018. "Plaintiffs have outlined numerous environmental impairments that are likely to result by virtue of the full implementation of the 2040 Plan. The court finds that such damage to the environment would be an irreparable harm to the environment, the protection of which is viewed by this state as being of paramount concern."
Minneapolis' 2040 Plan received national acclaim for ending single-family zoning, an aggressive approach to building more housing and managing urban sprawl amid growth that the Metropolitan Council had forecast for the Twin Cities region before the pandemic. But it also garnered controversy from residents concerned that the plan would enrich rental property developers without growing opportunities for homeownership, where Minnesota has lingering racial disparities.
"Residents of color already face significant barriers to home ownership, which would have been exacerbated under the plan as a result of reduced access to and availability of single family properties," said activist Nekima Levy Armstrong, a member of the plaintiffs' legal team, in a statement calling Tuesday's ruling a "major victory." "The city now has an opportunity to create a more inclusive plan that factors in the unique needs of communities of color and environmental impacts to Minneapolis residents."
Leading up to the plan's passage in 2019, environmental organizations including Smart Growth Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds brought a lawsuit arguing that the cumulative impact of the comprehensive plan would pollute public waters while reducing green space for wildlife. The city fought back by saying municipal comprehensive plans — big-vision documents — should not be subject to the type of environmental review that could be conducted on individual projects with clear specifications to assess.
However, by not raising a defense against the substance of the environmental groups' claims, the city lost a series of court rulings concluding the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) does regulate municipal comprehensive plans, and the 2040 Plan specifically would likely create environmental harm.
Last summer, Klein ordered the city to cease implementing the 2040 Plan and revert back to its last decennial comprehensive plan. The Court of Appeals upheld his ruling on the applicability of MERA, but not his injunction. It asked the district court judge to better explain his reasoning for why going back to the 2030 Plan would be less environmentally destructive than the 2040 Plan.
In June, the parties clashed again in a hearing over the then-undecided fate of the 2040 Plan. The environmental groups urged Klein to simply reissue his last order, chastising the city for not disclosing information about an environmental review of the 2040 Plan that it initiated early this year. The city asked for a less drastic solution, proposing the court cap its building permits to 100,000 new housing units in the low-density neighborhoods that make up half the city, rather than the nearly 150,000 units allowed under the 2040 Plan.
"A reversion to the 2030 Plan would impose significant unnecessary hardship on the City of Minneapolis by putting it into a position where it cannot comply with the Metropolitan Land Planning Act and this court's order, by requiring it to revise a number of ordinances and policies not connected with or addressed by this litigation, and by requiring significant changes not necessary to avoid the outcome that Plaintiffs claim will cause environmental harm," the city argued in legal filings.
Klein did not agree with the city's position, writing of his reasoning to order a reversion to the 2030 Plan: "Increased population density is an affirmative feature of the residential portions of the 2040 Plan, a feature that has not been present in any previous comprehensive plan, including the 2030 Plan."
The judge left open the option for the city to conduct an environmental study to bring the 2040 Plan into compliance with MERA and remedy environmental concerns.
On Tuesday, Mayor Jacob Frey's office said in a statement they were "extremely disappointed" in Klein's ruling: "We've invested in record amounts of affordable rental housing production in Minneapolis, limited rent increases to just 1% for the past five years, and have been credited with keeping inflation way below the national average. … So much of this progress, and our ability to meet future housing goals, has been made possible thanks to the 2040 Plan. Period."