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Who (Should) Make the Rules for the Mississippi River?

Nicollet Island and the Hennepin Avenue BridgeOf course, anyone who has thought about this for more than about a minute and a half would realize that a river the size of the Mississippi makes its own rules.  As my friend Karen Campbell used to say “Even dams are really just long term experiments on rivers.”

Nevertheless we are humans, so we have to try to impose our will on natural systems, and the Mississippi is no exception.  It serves us well; we serve it much less well.  In the metropolitan Twin Cities region, efforts to align the goals of a population now numbering about 3 million with the living system of the Mississippi really began in the 1970s, although there were some notable urban design efforts before then.  The 1970s saw the establishment of the Mississippi River corridor in the Twin Cities as the state’s first “Critical Area,” which set in motion all kinds of activity that continues to this day.

I’ll try to keep this short, I promise.  In the United States, land use decisions are typically managed at the local level.  Matters such as community planning, zoning, and related special studies are done by cities such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, or counties rather than by states, for the most part.

In the 1970s, the State of Minnesota recognized that the Mississippi River, a regional landscape with statewide, even national and international, significance, was being altered by locally-based zoning and planning decisions.  A community might allow a tall apartment building to be constructed along the river corridor, which made for great views, high value apartments, and a good addition to the tax base, but was a visual intrusion.  Or another community might allow development to take place right up to the shoreline, thereby ensuring that lawns would get established at the river edge, with damaging impacts on water quality.

The details of how cities administer the river corridor under their planning and zoning purview are worked out through state administrative rules.  After a disastrous effort a couple of years ago to revise these rules, the state Department of Natural Resources is trying again, this time with an approach that is much more responsive to local governments.  Local governments appear to be responding well to the new process; when you read this article closely, you’ll see lots of language to the effect that local government control is better than “having the state tell us what to do.”

But there lies the rub: as a landscape corridor of statewide and now designated national significance (this stretch of the Mississippi was added to the National Park System in 1988) there must be a strong role for government above the local level and for advocacy groups and other interested parties of all kinds.  If local governments can do with the Mississippi River corridor what they please, then it won’t be long before this mythic river looks like every other ignored, mistreated urban river.

Yes, I am that pessimistic.  I would love to be persuaded otherwise though, and welcome the discussion about appropriate balance of governance authority on such a world-class landscape as the Mississippi River.  This is difficult stuff, and I don’t have an answer ready at hand, so am hoping to hear from you, through comments on the blog, tweets to @RiverLifeUMN, on Facebook, or all three.



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  1. Greg GenzNovember 12, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    The reason the last effort for Critical Area planning didn’t work was because the DNR wasn’t really the driving entity behind the effort. It was the excessive influence of Friends of the Mississippi and the National Park Service that frightened residents and municipalities. The 72 miles of the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities is not a homogenous resource. It does not lend itself to a “one-size” fits all type of planning. The biggest impact for residents and businesses along the River is the term, non-conforming use. Assurances that it won’t impact current stakeholders means nothing when one tries to sell or finance any changes to those properties. And let’s be honest, does anyone think that a more restrictive plan would have kept the Upper Landing’s urban village, with its’ Euro-ugly buildings, from being built on what was and should have been a flood plain park?

  2. Who Knows the Mississippi River Best? What Difference Does it Make? | River LifeNovember 22, 2013 at 11:50 am

    […] recent blog post on rulemaking for the Mississippi River corridor through the Twin Cities generated some comments, both to the blog itself, and to the Facebook […]

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