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Working to protect the Mississippi River and its watershed in the Twin Cities area
The long-awaited revision of river corridor regulations for Saint Paul’s 17-mile stretch of the Mississippi River are soon to be released for public comment. The Planning Commission and the City Council will soon review them. FMR is pleased with the care that the City and community Task Force has taken in their efforts to plan for and protect Saint Paul’s river valley.
There are two lingering issues we would like to see addressed before the zoning code is formally adopted. First, we want to ensure that height standards along the river are adequate to protect the river’s scenic assets, and that no current critical area height standards are weakened. Second, we want the critical area district boundaries to be drawn perpendicular to the river and for each district to address its reach of the river as a holistic environmental system. By incorporating these two changes into the final adopted zoning code, we believe Saint Paul’s work will do much to protect the future of our Mississippi River valley.
Critical Area zoning is the primary local tool cities like Saint Paul use to protect the Mississippi’s unique natural, scenic, and cultural values. The 48-mile Mississippi River corridor from Anoka to Hastings was designated as a state Critical Area in 1976 by state Executive Order. The river corridor became a unit of the National Park Service in 1988. The state requires local governments along the Critical Area to periodically update local Critical Area plans and zoning to protect the natural, historic and scenic qualities of the River valley. (For more depth on Critical Area generally, see our links at the bottom of this page).
In Saint Paul, a City-appointed Task Force of community stakeholders has spent two years weighing updates to the Critical Area chapter of the Saint Paul zoning code. Over the last year, the Planning Commission and city staff has refined that work. The result is a set of rules for development within the corridor that will provide enhanced protection of the river’s natural and cultural resources and will help clarify for property owners about what they can build, alter or develop.
The proposal changes many aspects of the City’s Critical Area zoning code. The changes are quite complex, but to summarize them, the City has categorized its changes into the ten key headings below. More information on each of the changes that follows can be found in the Task Force Recommendations (68 KB PDF):
Overall, FMR commends the work the Task Force has done to draft a solid and well-considered set of protective regulations for the Mississippi River Critical Area in St. Paul. We believe the Task Force represented the interests of various river stakeholders, and that the City has been well served by strong leadership and a sound public process.
FMR recommends that the new regulations be adopted, but we would like to see some changes to the draft code. Two areas in particular deserve additional consideration by the City.
Protecting scenic views from building height impacts has been a frequent concern for locations like the West Side Flats, the Gorge north and south of the Ford Bridge, and bluffs and valley along Shepard Road. The City has grappled with how and when it ought to accommodate deviations from the critical area height standards and how best to identify and protect scenic viewsheds.
In FMR’s judgment, height limits should not be weakened, nor should exceptions be made, in areas of high scenic value. Regulations for the West Side Flats should be consistent with local plans and zoning for other areas in the floodplain, and ensure critical views across the flats are protected. West of Rankin Street — especially in the Gorge and including at the Ford site, FMR is opposed to increasing building height limits from 40 feet to 48 feet because of potential impacts to this unique scenic and highly valued resource.
FMR believes the public interest is best served by setting strong height standards that ensure consistent protection of the river’s scenic resources. Exceptions can still be made through variances in cases where scenic resources will not impacted.
Each property within the critical area gets both a traditional and critical area zoning designation. While traditional zoning is used to define land uses on a lot-by-lot basis, critical area zoning is designed to address large-scale scenic, cultural and ecological systems.
State law defines four critical area zoning districts to accommodate development appropriate to the urban, suburban and rural sections of the river corridor. In Saint Paul’s proposed critical area zoning, each reach of the river contains two or more zoning districts that usually run in layers parallel to the river. FMR believes this approach does not meet the intent of the state critical area designation, which identifies the four district definitions and boundaries. Specifically, we are opposed to dividing the corridor laterally and changing land currently within the Urban Open Space District to the less protective Urban Developed District. The zoning standards should relate to the overall visions for the natural systems in each reach of the river valley, rather than the uses on individual parcels of land.
Over the last several years, the zoning proposal has already been reviewed by the City’s Critical Area Task Force, City Staff and the Comprehensive Planning Committee of the City’s Planning Commission.
Photo: National Park Service/Mississippi National River & Recreation Area
The full Saint Paul Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the Critical Area zoning, likely in February or March. The public is encouraged to share their thoughts on the proposal then. The Planning Commission will vote on the proposal on or after that date.
From there the proposal will go to a public hearing at the City Council, to be adopted by the City Council and Mayor. After adoption, the Department of Natural Resources and the Metropolitan Council will review the proposal to ensure it meets state requirements for the Mississippi River Critical Area.
Your voice will be key to ensuring Saint Paul’s river valley is adequately protected. Check back in this space to see how you can ensure Saint Paul’s Critical Area zoning adequately protects the Mississippi’s scenic, cultural and natural systems.