Planning Commission jumps the gun on Corridor Critical Area issue

Strong Blog

Picture this:  a row of buildings along the northerly Mississippi River bluff in Saint Paul from the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers near Fort Snelling to downtown.  Not just any buildings, but 65’+ buildings that stand well above the 40’ or so tree line.  How do you feel about that?

Has anyone asked your opinion?  Did you know you could give it?  Did you even know the subject was being discussed?

The Mississippi River Corridor, roughly from Anoka to Hastings, is under special protection.  The name of this area is the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area.  The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has had rules protecting this scenic area for 40 years.  Those rules are being revised.

How can the Planning Commission issue an opinion on rules that were not completed, not published, and not publicly vetted?

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The exact same area has another name:  The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.  It is a National Park.  This area is of critical significance for us local folks, as well as the region and the nation.  One could even say internationally, as the river is an iconic feature of our state to citizens around the world.

The DNR has been revising the rules for a while.  In 2014, a public hearing was held at the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development’s Planning Commission.  After that hearing, DNR staff met with city staff and a select group:  the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, the St. Paul Port Authority, Friends of the Mississippi River, and the National Park Service, but not the public.  In those meetings, the rules were further revised to create an updated rule document.

This is where it gets interesting:  in October of 2015, the Planning Commission passed a resolution in support of the second rule document BUT those “new” rules had yet to be made publicly available and had received no public hearing.  In fact, it was to be six more months before the rules were completed and published, in April of 2016. 

How can the Planning Commission issue an opinion on rules that were not completed, not published, and not publicly vetted?

It gets better (or worse).  That resolution is now part of a City Council resolution up for a public hearing at 5:30pm on Wednesday, May 18, City Hall, 15 Kellogg Boulevard W., in St. Paul, Council Chambers room 330.  The public is invited to testify at this public hearing, all be it for a very limited few minutes.

The City Council resolution means that the City supports the Planning Commission’s resolution which supports the staff comments which argue against restrictions on development of slopes greater than 18%.   Here’s what that means:  the city’s adopted policies prohibit development of those same slopes, so if they pass this resolution they will, in effect, be arguing against their own adopted policy.

Building heights, how close buildings can be to the river, what kind of slopes can be developed, vegetation management, areas of historical and cultural significance, scenic views, and other things are all part of these “Critical Area” rules.  Yet, there has been no public input on the actual rules.  The upcoming City Council hearing is a far cry from what is needed.  Any of those topics could be an evening’s discussion alone.

Once again, a lack of process in Saint Paul is rearing its ugly head.  Attend the hearing on Wednesday and tell the Council to give this area the full consideration it deserves and to engage the public in deciding how this area should be treated.

A lack of discussion and process around rules will forever decide the look, feel, health, and experience of the river corridor.  A hasty vote based on limited input is never good policy. 

There is no DNR requirement that the city submit an official position.  If the city goes on record with an official position, if/when the public does get engaged, it will be pretty darn hard to have an in-depth and meaningful, objective conversation on any of the topics mentioned above when the city has already taken a position.

Mayor Coleman said on May 12, after a week-long series of engagement based on equity and design, “When we turned our back on the river, it was bad for all of St. Paul.  Now that we’ve protected this natural resource, it has added vibrancy to our entire city.” 

Saint Paul STRONG urges the City Council to delay taking a position on these “Critical Area” rules until there has been a well-publicized public process for citizen input.