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Recent pronouncements that the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis (ACM) legitimately cannot be an environmental organization and a co-plaintiff against the city's Minneapolis 2040 plan at the same time reflect an abject misinterpretation of the lawsuit (Readers Write, "'Environmentalists,' really?" June 24).

In truth, the litigation transpired because the city failed to conduct an environmental review in accordance with state environmental law.

Furthermore, the ACM is not anti-density or anti-development, but supports the goals of the 2040 plan, including climate change resilience, affordable and accessible housing, elimination of disparities, a sustainable and diverse economy, and a "clean environment" with healthy air, clean water and a vibrant ecosystem.

But with its 2040 plan, the city recklessly created a false choice between unregulated development and a healthy environment.

As co-plaintiff Smart Growth Minneapolis explains: City dwellers who live in dense areas still have the right to clean air and water. If we are to have a livable and sustainable city, any responsible plan for greater density must anticipate and identify ways to mitigate unintended harm to already fragile urban water, air, wildlife and ecosystems.

Minneapolis 2040 neither identifies possible negative effects on our environment from up-zoning nor includes strategies to prevent or mitigate that harm. In fact, the plan allows greater density in flood zones, rail evacuation zones and already polluted areas of the city, while creating the legal right to build virtually anything in Minneapolis without environmental scrutiny.

By deregulating development, the plan puts our environment directly at risk through cumulative harm.

As the basis of the lawsuit, co-plaintiffs presented evidence that implementing Minneapolis 2040 would damage the environment. A plan analysis conducted by civil and environmental engineering firm Sunde Engineering demonstrated that Minneapolis 2040 largely ignored the plan's likely environmental impacts, including:

  • Increased pollution of already impaired city lakes, streams and watershed, due to increased runoff, overtaxed stormwater systems.
  • Soil erosion, due to increased velocity of runoff.
  • Floods that would be more frequent, more severe and longer-lasting, due to increased impervious surfaces.
  • Diminished air quality due to increased traffic, congestion and idling.
  • Reduced wildlife habitat and aquatic biodiversity, due to pollution and increased stream temperatures.
  • Safety problems related to pedestrian, bicycle and vehicle traffic.
  • Increased visual and noise pollution, shadowing of properties and solar panels, increased glare from buildings, privacy reduction.

On June 15, Hennepin County District Judge Joseph Klein ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, halting implementation of the Minneapolis 2040 plan, including zoning and land-use changes, until the city complies with the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA). Judge Klein's decision makes it crystal clear that the city failed to address the environmental concerns raised by the plaintiffs. The city's expert, he wrote, failed to "specifically address, or purport to rebut to any degree of specificity, the many detailed assertions advanced by plaintiffs ... ."

Judge Klein's decision also debunks the city's specious reasoning to allow the 2040 plan to move forward and then conduct environmental reviews for individual projects. He concluded that Minneapolis 2040 would "result in residential construction being allowed until the city is one project away from — or even one step beyond the point of no return from — material and adverse environmental impacts."

If the city truly intended to make environmental progress and achieve climate resilience, the plan would have included an environmental assessment. Instead, it sidestepped the need to study and mitigate environmental effects.

In an interview with journalist Matt Levin in December 2018, then-City Council President Lisa Bender said she was glad Minneapolis doesn't have environmental laws like California's signature Environmental Quality Act "because we probably would have been enjoined from doing our plan."

Fortunately, Minnesotans have our own signature environmental law, and earlier this year the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed citizens' rights to hold their government accountable, under MERA, for the potential harmful effects of city plans on our environment and on the health and well-being of Minneapolis residents.

Keith Olstad, of Minneapolis, chairs the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis.