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St. Paul troubled by DNR river proposal

Proposed rules intended to protect the Mississippi River could curtail redevelopment of key properties in St. Paul like the former Ford plant and Ramsey County Government Center West, as well as inhibit proposals in the Great River Passage Master Plan, city planning staff members say.

Earlier this week, staff members released a memo detailing objections to components of Department of Natural Resources draft rules published in June that would govern the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area. They discussed the complaints with the Comprehensive Planning Committee on Tuesday and plan to discuss the issue with the larger Planning Commission on Friday.

The area covered by the proposal runs along the river from the cities of Dayton and Ramsey to the southern boundary of Dakota County, through the jurisdiction of 30 local governments. The memo was the latest salvo fired in a long-running battle over how to protect the river while still allowing a variety of activities — including environmental recreational and urban uses.

“We’re looking for a balance of all these purposes,” said Donna Drummond, St. Paul’s planning director.

The city laid out four big objections in a summary:

— Lack of nuance: The city contends that rules prohibiting development in carefully defined areas like “primary conservation areas” and “slope impact zones” put swathes of the corridor off limits instead of examining what’s appropriate for specific sites. These also ignore St. Paul’s long track record of responsible management of riverside properties, planners argue.

— Incompatibility with existing uses and planned redevelopment: The number of nonconforming properties would grow from about 1,200 now to an estimated 2,200 under the proposed rules, Drummond said. Most of those are likely single-family homes, but it also includes commercial and industrial properties, as well as parkland.

— Administrative burden and intrusiveness: The extra rules would be costly for property owners and create extra work for cities, according to the summary. “In some cases the connection between the rule and the critical area purposes is weak or questionable,” it stated. “In other cases there are alternative, less costly and less intrusive options for achieving the purpose of the rules.”

— Lack of data and analysis: City staff members contend that the DNR hasn’t “conducted meaningful analysis” of the rules’ impact on existing development and that it hasn’t provided “provided accurate and complete geographic information” that cities need to analyze the rules.

Many of the worries revolve around rules that would limit building near bluffs and “very steep slopes.” Several sites at the forefront of the city’s redevelopment vision are near bluffs or steep slopes, and officials worry the new rules could hinder those plans.

The Ramsey County Government Center West and former Ramsey County jail are built into a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Although the rules allow nonconforming buildings to continue with their existing use, St. Paul wants the flexibility to make the most of the site.

One vision presented in March would remake the property into a hotel and skyline-altering tower seemingly growing out of riverfront bluffs. A public pathway would give people a sense of climbing from the river corridor to the bluff the proposed DNR rules intend to protect.

The Great River Passage Master Plan, a vision for the city’s riverfront, also aims to take advantage of the bluffs. Drummond said the draft rules could prohibit amenities like the “river balcony” — a walkway or “urban promenade” along the bluff running from Lowertown through Kellogg Park to the Science Museum.

The biggest bluff-side site that could be affected is the 125-acre former assembly site for Ford Motor Co. Drummond said increased bluff setbacks may be appropriate. But the rules would also impose height restrictions on a property that St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has positioned as a “21st Century Community“ with the density to be walkable and sustainable. Several efforts are underway to better understand and market the site, and Drummond said it’s unwise to create restrictions before those efforts are complete.

“We think that type of analysis really needs to be done before we put an arbitrary cap on [heights],” she said.

Rethinking the rules

Dan Petrik, a DNR land use specialist, said the draft rules wouldn’t stop the balcony from being built. The DNR also doesn’t want to get in the way of the downtown projects St. Paul has in mind, although he allowed that the agency may need to review the provisions to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Alicia Uzarek, a policy advocate at Friends of the Mississippi River, agreed with Petrik that the rules wouldn’t impede the Great River Passage effort, a process that the friends participated in.

“These rules provide one more layer to ensure those plans happen because they will outlast city governments and city councils and city staff that are there right now doing good work,” she said.

The process shouldn’t stop Ford site development either, Petrik said. The envisioned height limits may be as high as 65 feet, taller than the 35 feet allowed now. There would also be a city-run conditional use permit process for projects that aim higher.

Meanwhile, the definition of bluffs and very steep slopes is something the DNR is already reconsidering, he said. The criteria wound up “casting a wider net than intended.” The agency plans to analyze the effects of six different definitions on properties and look in detail at six communities representing a cross-section of the river corridor.

That’s likely to delay the process. The DNR had been accepting comments on the draft rules through Aug. 15, but the agency plans to let stakeholders know they have until the end of September if they need extra time.

After the comment period, the DNR will create groups around each topic area for those affected to hash out a compromise. Formal rulemaking was to begin by the end of the year. It’ll likely be pushed into next year because of the additional work and because the agency wants to ensure the rules have broad support first.

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