City Council “Outraged” Over DNR Downzoning to Benefit Elected Officials

Two members of the Minneapolis City Council have expressed serious concern over what they see as the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources pushing special land-use restrictions that would protect the proverbial backyards of certain unnamed elected officials. The comments were made during a June 9 Zoning and Planning Committee discussion about new rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. The MRCCA is an area along the Mississippi River subject to “special land development regulations that protect and preserve unique natural, recreational, transportation, and cultural features.”

Council President Johnson called the DNR’s proposal “distressing” and joked that she’d like to make a special deal to protect her own backyard: “If I could carve some stuff out too, I might do that.” The area in question—half of Nicollet Island and an adjacent area encompassing Boom Island Park—includes the homes of State Rep. Phyllis Kahn and former Minneapolis City Council member Diane Hofstede.

Council member Lisa Goodman said she was “outraged” and described the DNR’s proposal as “last-minute changes made for political purposes to provide downzoning and protections for elected officials and their families and not anyone else.” She added that the DNR’s map “boundaries make absolutely no sense” other than as a political favor: “There’s no other explanation for why half of Nicollet Island would be in a further-protected area in the middle of our central business district.”

City Council members suggest the DNR is attempting to “downzone” the area in yellow as a favor to the elected officials who live there.

One consequence of the DNR’s proposed map would be a restriction on building height that conflicts with the city’s current code. Nearly 50 properties currently zoned R5 would fall under an MRCCA maximum height of 35 feet, far less than the existing Minneapolis zoning which allows for 56 feet.

Both Johnson and Goodman expressed a strong desire for Minneapolis to maintain “flexibility” and independence on land-use decisions, with Johnson citing the benefits of “billions and billions of dollars worth of investment” along the river in recent years. Goodman worried it would create another layer of zoning confusion for residents: “Our zoning is what should prevail and not some DNR-imposed fake rezoning that would give people some sort of feeling like we’re going to be capping heights and development and distance from the river.”

A draft response to the DNR proposal written by Minneapolis planning staff notes the area in question contains buildings which are already taller than the proposed limits, and points out this is an urban center designated by city policy for future growth. The letter says it would be “short-sighted to designate this area long term as low density residential” and requests the area be reclassified to match adjacent “urban” districts.

In addition to feedback from the city on these new rules, the DNR is accepting comments from the public until July 6, 2016.

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