Bill would cut Mississippi River protection plan

Share story

Playing near the river
Across the Mississippi River from housing developments, Ethan Williams of St. Paul plays with his ex-girlfriend's dog Buddy in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. A bill in the legislature may limit the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to develop guidelines regarding zoning ordinances and sightlines along the river.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi River that winds through the Twin Cities metro area is considered a treasure by people who love it. But a two-year-long effort to create new protections for it may be overturned by the Legislature.

Lawmakers are responding to some residents, who say they've been left out of the planning process.

But advocates say the new rules are the only way to make sure development along the river doesn't destroy its special character.

The area is favorite place for people, but also for millions of birds, especially in spring, said Whitney Clark, executive director of the Friends of the Mississippi River.

Near Fort Snelling, not far from where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers join southwest of downtown St. Paul, is Crosby Farm Regional Park. It's a place where it's not unusual to see an eagle soars above the water before dropping to a branch on the wooded bluff across the river.

At the top of the bluff, a three-story condo presents a visual contrast to the natural setting.

Clark said the building met the existing zoning rules when it was built less than 10 years ago, but its foundation is about a foot from the edge of the bluff, which is constantly eroding. He considers it visually unappealing.

"The developer here was following the rules, and the rules weren't protective enough," he said.

Bald eagles
Bald eagles sit in a tree near a housing development on the Mississippi River in Lilydale, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. A bill in the legislature may limit the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to develop guidelines regarding zoning ordinances and sightlines along the river.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Clark's group is one of several pursuing rules that would prevent this kind of development along the river. The draft rules set standards on height and distance from the river for new buildings, requirements for controlling runoff in new developments, and restrictions on clearing land.

But the rules would also address non-aesthetic concerns. Clark said the river in the Twin Cities is far from meeting state standards for water quality. The Health Department advises people to limit their fish-eating as pollution from yards and streets flows through storm sewers right into the river.

Four years ago, the state Department of Natural Resources hired Friends of the Mississippi River to conduct workshops to learn what people thought about the river.

Two years ago, the legislature directed the department to come up with a plan to protect the river. The DNR worked with interest groups and local governments for a year and a half to try to hash out rules everyone could accept. Then it ran up against a state deadline that allows only 18 months for such rule-making efforts. In January the work stopped in its tracks.

Now some legislators want to stop this project and any future special rules for the Twin Cities area section of the river.

State Sen. Benjamin Kruse, R-Brooklyn Park, who sponsored a bill that would strip the DNR of authority to ever make such rules for the river. He said people and businesses along the river already take care of it because they recognize its special value, "not just in the natural resource itself but financially."

"Even if you have to boil it down to that, they understand that caring for this river, caring for the shoreline, is fundamental to preserving their property values," Kruse said.

Sightlines on the Mississippi River
Housing developments along the Mississippi River are pointed out by Friends of the Mississippi River executive director Whitney Clark in St. Paul, Minn. Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011. A bill in the legislature may limit the ability of the Department of Natural Resources to develop guidelines regarding zoning ordinances and sightlines along the river.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A citizens group called Mississippi River Stewards backs the bill. The group's founder, Roger Kruse — no relation to Sen. Benjamin Kruse — said the DNR proposals represent a power grab by the state, and onerous restrictions.

"I knew a person who had a five-acre parcel near where I live, who planned on putting multiple homes," Roger Kruse said. "I don't remember how many was going to go on it, but according to the way the new rules were written he could put two houses on this parcel. It would bankrupt him."

Roger Kruse said the DNR resisted public input. But department officials say they bent over backward to include as many people as possible — that's one reason the agency bumped against the deadline. DNR hydrologist Jeff Berg said the agency wants more time to continue the work, and to try to satisfy everybody.

"We got a lot of involvement from local governments, business interests, and environmental organizations," Berg said. "So I think we had the right people at table. You could pick up tomorrow, next year, a couple years from now, and it's still a good starting point."

But so far there's no bill at the Legislature to give the DNR more time.

The bill to strip the DNR's rulemaking authority has passed the Senate. It has yet to be heard in the House.

Before you go...

MPR News is dedicated to bringing you clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives when we need it most. We rely on your help to do this. Your donation has the power to keep MPR News strong and accessible to all during this crisis and beyond.