A Critical time for a Critical Area

Villager Op ED

June 8, 2016

by John Mannillo, Spokesperson for Saint Paul STRONG

Picture this: a row of buildings along the north side of the river bluff all the way from the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers to downtown St. Paul. And not just any buildings, but 65-foot-tall ones that soar well above the 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, stretching from Anoka to Hastings, is also known as the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has had rules in place for protecting this scenic area for 40 years. Those rules are now being revised.

That same area has another name: The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. It's a National Park. This area is of critical significance for us who live here, as well as for the region and the nation. One could even say the world, as the Mississippi River is an iconic feature of our state to people everywhere.

The DNR has been revising the rules for quite a while. In 2014, a public hearing was held by the St. Paul Planning Commission. After that hearing, DNR staff met with city staff and a select group: representatives of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, the St. Paul Port Authority, Friends of the Mississippi River, and the National Park Service, but not with the public. In those meetings, the rules were further revised.

This is where it gets interesting. In October of 2015, the Planning Commission passed a resolution in support of the new rules, even though the 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 could 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 was up for a public hearing before the City Council on May 18 in City Hall, the first time the public had a chance to weigh in. The Council tabled the discussion until June 22, though it is unclear if the exact same resolution will be considered at that meeting.

Passage of the City Council's resolution would have meant that the city supports the Planning Commission's resolution, which supports city staff comments, which argue against restrictions on development on slopes of greater than 18 percent.

Here's what that means: The city's adopted policies prohibit developments on those same slopes, so if the City Council passes the resolution it will in effect be arguing against its own adopted policies.

Building heights, their proximity to the river, what slopes can be developed, vegetation management, scenic views and areas of historical and cultural significance are all governed by the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rules. Yet the only public input on the the new rules was relegated to 15 minutes on May 18. That's a far cry from what's needed.

Once again, the lack of public process in St. Paul is rearing its ugly head. Before June 22, contact the City Council and mayor and demand that they give the river corridor the full consideration it deserves. The new rules will forever dictate the look, feel, health and experience of the river corridor. A hasty vote with limited public input is never a good policy.

There is no DNR requirement that the city submit an official position. But if the city does go on record with an official position, it should only be after an in-depth and meaningful conversation on the topics mentioned above.

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 participation.

John Mannillo is a resident of Highland Park, a downtown St. Paul business owner, a former candidate for St. Paul mayor and City Council, and the spokesperson for Saint Paul STRONG, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving open government in St. Paul.