After hearing from a room full of citizens vehemently divided on the issue, the Plymouth City Council decided Tuesday against joining Minnesota GreenStep Cities, a program that offers guidelines for cities aimed at improving environmental protections and sustainability practices.
Opponents were concerned the program would require Plymouth to take mandated steps, thereby moving control of local decisions to state government.
But advocates and others directly involved with the program said such action is optional and that all decisions would rest with the City Council and could be reversed.
"It's a way for us to get together with other cities and say, 'Look what we're doing. Isn't it cool?' " said Katy Campbell, a Plymouth resident who previously sat on the Hopkins City Council. Hopkins joined the program in 2010.
Isaac Orr of Minneapolis, a policy fellow with the Center of the American Experiment who specializes in energy and environmental policy, said some of the actions spelled out by the program could cause unanticipated problems or cost more than expected.
"Good intentions do not always result in good outcomes," Orr said. Although the program steps are "technically voluntary," he said, they could create a "keeping up with the Joneses" atmosphere that pressures cities into taking increasingly dramatic action.
Advocates said the program allows cities to demonstrate their commitment to protecting the environment, since the steps taken by a city are displayed on the program's website. It also lets cities exchange information and share ideas.
About 100 people filled the council chambers, roughly half on each side of the issue. In the end, the council rejected the program on a 4-3 vote.
About 135 Minnesota cities participate in GreenStep Cities, about half of them in the metro area.
The free program gets significant funding from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and partners with eight other state departments and nonprofit organizations, including the League of Minnesota Cities.
The program provides a list of 175 areas where cities can improve sustainability, including outdoor lighting, energy efficiency, housing density and stormwater management. Each of the five steps in the program calls for increasing actions and more rigorous measures. Fifteen cities so far have completed all five steps.
Eden Prairie is among the most enthusiastic participants in GreenStep Cities, a program official said. It joined in 2011 and completed the fifth step in 2017, said Beth Novak-Krebs, the city's senior planner.
Plymouth already has done enough to get to the second step, said Philipp Muessig, a co-director of GreenStep Cities.
Plymouth council members winced at the "polarization" at Tuesday's meeting and the sometimes harsh words flung between residents who spoke on one side or the other.
"I really don't like this road we're going down, where there are some issues that bring in bitterly opposed groups of people," said Council Member Jim Prom, who voted against joining the program.
"We're not always going to agree, but let's disagree agreeably," said Council Member Jim Willis, who voted for GreenStep Cities.