Judge halts Minneapolis 2040 zoning plan amid environmental questions

Minneapolis City Hall
The exterior facade of Minneapolis City Hall on Feb. 8, 2022.
Tim Evans for MPR News file

Updated: 4:30 p.m.

A Hennepin County judge has ordered Minneapolis officials to stop implementing the city’s long-range development plan amid concerns around its potential environmental impact.

Wednesday's ruling by Judge Joseph Klein does not kill the plan, known as Minneapolis 2040, and leaves open the possibility of restarting it once the city takes steps to address environmental concerns.

Klein, though, made it clear the city had failed to address the environmental concerns raised by groups in court. The city's expert, he wrote, failed to "specifically address, or purport to rebut to any degree of specificity, the many detailed assertions advanced by plaintiffs" such as the effects of increased traffic and noise, loss of green space, effects on air and water quality, and stress on existing infrastructure.

Cathy Wurzer talks with Minnesota Reformer reporter Max Nesterak about the 2040 plan

The judge added that the city's argument that allowing the 2040 plan to move forward and then doing environmental reviews for individual projects, would "result in residential construction being allowed until the city is one project away from — or even one step beyond the point of no return from — material and adverse environmental impacts."

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In a statement, Erik Nilsson, deputy city attorney for Minneapolis, said the order is being reviewed and “while we anticipate filing an appeal,” the city will “consider all options."

Approved in 2018 by the City Council, Minneapolis 2040 includes goals for the city on areas from employment to arts and culture, public health and the environment. Although much of it has not been controversial, there’s been significant pushback on areas dealing with zoning changes to allow for increased density to spur affordable housing.

A coalition of groups including the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, sued the city in 2018 arguing "the 2040 Plan, with its massive, citywide upzoning, will materially adversely impact the environment" and that the city "has refused to identify, let alone address, these material adverse environmental impacts."

Rebecca Arons, executive director of Smart Growth Minneapolis — part of the coalition that filed the suit — lauded Wednesday's decision.

"What this ruling really is about is something which should have happened before the 2040 plan was passed by the city of Minneapolis — and that is there should have been environmental review of their plan, incorporated into the plan itself," Arons told MPR News.

In a statement, she elaborated that "the law requires the city to show that its actions are causing the least environmental harm feasible while trying to achieve its goals, including greater density. This court victory will prevent mistakes from being made by environmentally blind implementation of the plan."

The ruling, she added, will give city officials "the chance to better address issues of environmental injustice, gentrification and housing displacement” and that a review could address the groups' concerns and allow a potentially revised version of the 2040 plan to move forward.

Council member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents part of north Minneapolis, said the lawsuit is really about preserving the status quo.

“People like exclusionary zoning practices. They don’t mind if there’s a neighborhood that’s sort of exclusive to the wealthy. They don’t mind if the consequences are, by and large, segregation in our city. They don’t explicitly want those things. But they don’t mind,” the council member said.

MPR News reporters Dan Gunderson, Matt Sepic and Tim Nelson and editor Andrew Krueger contributed to this report.