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New rules set for Mississippi corridor land use, development

New rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) will improve protections for water quality, habitat and scenic views like this one in Lower Spring Lake Park Reserve. (Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently published development rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA), an important milestone toward protecting the river’s 72-mile stretch through the Twin Cities metropolitan area. 

“I am extremely proud of the State of Minnesota for taking steps to protect one of our region’s greatest assets,” said former Sen. Katie Sieben, who authored the Critical Area Reform legislation and who recently joined the FMR board of directors. “The Mississippi River is so important to our community and these rules will ensure that our children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy this precious resource for many years to come.”

The MRCCA is a 54,000-acre land corridor on both sides of the Mississippi River that extends through the seven-county metro area from Ramsey in the north to Hastings in the south. The land along this stretch was designated a state critical area in 1976 to protect its scenic, environmental and economic values.

In 2009, Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR) successfully urged the state Legislature to require an overhaul of the rules to provide clarity and better protect the river while supporting reasonable development. The Minnesota Legislature directed the DNR to conduct rulemaking to create new, updated districts and standards to replace those in the nearly 40-year old executive order that currently regulates development in the MRCCA. 

According to a FMR news release, the new state MRCCA rules provide a set of clear, consistent and effective standards and guidelines to ensure that the most valuable resources in the corridor are protected and preserved while supporting appropriate development.

The new rules contain setback provisions intended to keep buildings and development activity away from shoreline areas and areas prone to soil erosion and slope failure. Building height provisions are designed to preserve natural views within the corridor. And new vegetation and land alteration standards aim to retain and restore deep-rooted vegetation along the river’s edge and on steep slopes and to prevent erosion during development. 

According to the DNR, the rules are the result of extensive collaboration with local governments, business and environmental groups and property owners to hear concerns, gather ideas and balance interests for rules that:

  • Improve protections for water quality, habitat and scenic views.

  • Protect existing development and allow redevelopment while protecting key resources.

  • Provide clear standards for landowners and simplify local government administration.  

“Developing modern rules will go a long way toward improving efficiency and consistency while protecting the essential values that led to the MRCCA’s original designation,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “That’s something we hope landowners, local units of government and river advocates can all support.”

 “The DNR is to be commended for their facilitation of an excellent rulemaking process, for their willingness to listen to diverse stakeholders and for the way they balanced the many competing interests in preparing the final rule package,” said Friends of the Mississippi River Corridor Program Director Irene Jones.

FMR has played a key role in the development of the new rules for more than a decade. FMR has worked with state legislators to pass the initial Critical Area Reform which authorized the new rules, participated in scores of DNR and stakeholder meetings and spent hundreds of hours reviewing and commenting on the rules at every stage of the process. Jones said the organization also inspired, assisted and engaged several thousand local activists (FMR River Protectors) and community organizations to weigh in.

The river is home to a full range of residential neighborhoods and parks, as well as river-related commerce, industry, and transportation. Though the river corridor has been extensively developed, many intact and remnant natural areas remain, including bluffs, islands, floodplains, wetlands, riparian zones and native aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna. The executive order designating the MRCCA contains development standards and criteria that have been implemented via local plans and zoning ordinances for nearly 40 years. 

The rules become effective Jan. 4, five working days after their publication. 

Existing local government MRCCA plans and ordinances will remain in effect until local governments update them to comply with the rules. The DNR anticipates a minimum five-year process to implement the rules. The first step will be to work with local governments to update their MRCCA plans, which the DNR hopes to align with the Metropolitan Council’s December 2018 deadline for comprehensive plan updates. FMR also plans to reach out to city officials and local citizens to engage in this process.

“We hope to work constructively with cities, and will be available to provide technical assistance if needed,” Jones said.

Following MRCCA plan updates, work will begin on revisions to local MRCCA ordinances. This effort will be implemented over an estimated three-year period likely beginning in 2019 and extending through 2021 or beyond.

Building on the collaborative rulemaking effort, the DNR will continue to engage local governments and interest groups during the implementation process. 

The rules and other information are available on the DNR’s project website

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