Environmentalists Fight Minneapolis 2040 Plan

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – Two statewide bird conservation groups and local environmentalists claim Minneapolis’ proposed rezoning plan would increase housing density and relax regulations at the expense of natural resources such as trees and lakes.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday in Hennepin County District Court argues the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan is the biggest “upzoning” proposal in any U.S. city and has not undergone a proper environmental review. Upzoning means changing zoning in a certain area from residential to commercial, which often causes more congestion.

The Minneapolis City Council is likely to approve the plan Friday, which will make room for about 150,000 new housing units and allow upzoning increases up to 435 percent in some residential areas, according environmental advocates.

The measure would govern land-use development within city for at least the next decade.

Smart Growth Minneapolis is a nonprofit dedicated to the “preservation, beautification and environmentally sustainable development” of the city, according to the lawsuit it filed with bird conservation groups Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds.

The environmentalists, represented by attorneys with Minneapolis firms Briggs and Morgan and Kutak Rock, seek a court order preventing the city from approving the 2040 plan before a sufficient environmental review has been conducted.

They claim the plan would result in the loss of urban green space and “untold numbers of trees,” and would relax ordinances protecting lakes and creeks in Minneapolis as well as the Mississippi River.

The plaintiffs hired Minneapolis-based Sunde Engineering to do their own initial environmental assessment to satisfy their burden of proof under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, or MERA, showing that the rezoning plan is likely to cause pollution and adversely impact the air, water and land.

According to that report, which was finalized in November, effects on the environmental will include increased noise impacts, pedestrian traffic, vehicle traffic, congestion, decreased air quality and parking constraints.

Increased storm water runoff, water pollutants and floodplain elevations could also occur, the study reportedly found.

One of Smart Growth’s attorneys, Tom Basting of Briggs and Morgan, said in a statement that Minneapolis city planners “themselves admit this is the most radical upzoning project ever attempted in North America.”

“In fact, it’s a massive experiment totally unsupported by either research or experience. But Minneapolis is rushing headlong into it without the slightest idea of how it would affect our air, water and wildlife, contribute to flooding, traffic congestion and noise, and otherwise affect our health, safety and quality of life,” Basting said.

The plaintiffs claim their lawsuit has nothing to do with the merits of the “heated debate” over the 2040 plan, but instead seeks to force Minneapolis to comply with environmental review requirements.

Another one of the environmentalists’ attorneys, Jack Perry with Briggs and Morgan, said the city must either present a rebuttal to the plaintiffs’ environmental study or another “affirmative defense.” He said Sunde Engineering’s environmental study was completed within a “couple weeks.”

Other cities such as Seattle and Moorhead, Minnesota, have voluntarily conducted environmental studies before to implementing their land use plans which were on a much smaller scale, according to the complaint.

Tuesday’s lawsuit should come as “no news flash,” Perry said, as the city has known about the Sunde Engineering study “for a long time.” He said the city has admitted it is aware what Seattle and Moorhead have done, but for “whatever reason” Minneapolis wants to avoid an environmental review.

But Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said in a statement that the claims in the lawsuit “are without basis.”

“The city’s process in developing the [2040] plan was thorough, comprehensive and fully compliant with all applicable state laws,” Segal said.

John Goetz, president of Smart Growth Minnesota president, said the lawsuit “is being filed as a last resort and only after every other avenue has been exhausted.”

“Residents’ concerns regarding environmental review voiced directly to the City Council and Planning Commission have been ignored, direct appeals by SGM to city planner Heather Worthington and Mayor [Jacob] Frey went nowhere,” he said in a statement. “They seem determined to make Minneapolis the poster child of environmental irresponsibility.”

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