The plaintiffs in the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan lawsuit did the near-impossible: We "fought City Hall" and won. Repeatedly.
That victory gave teeth to our state's bedrock environmental law, the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act of 1971 (MERA), which says every Minnesotan has the right to clean air, land and water.
Under MERA, the courts have ordered the city of Minneapolis to conduct an environmental review to identify the "likely material adverse environmental impacts" of its 2040 plan.
It is important to note, contrary to the claims of our critics, that we have never expressed opposition to the Minneapolis 2040 plan or its goals. Neither have we opposed the elimination of single-family zoning or the permitting of duplexes/triplexes through the city. We do believe that an environmental review of the 2040 Plan by an objective third party will provide the essential data needed to vet the plan, mitigate likely harm and leverage benefits.
Environmental review of individual proposed projects is not uncommon. But what to do about a plan whose implementation of permitted land use and development over time may have cumulative negative effects, exacerbating flooding, polluted lakes, heat zones and gentrification? Environmental risks of such a comprehensive and complex level can't be identified on a project-by-project basis.
Confronting this problem, the courts concluded that MERA requires the city to take environmental responsibility for its 2040 Plan. When the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on this case in 2021, it said no alternative to environmental review exists for such vetting.
Over the five-year course of the lawsuit, the city was unable to produce a single environmental expert who was willing to deny under oath that the 2040 Plan's broad authorization of land-use and zoning changes is "likely to cause the pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources within the state."
But in its ongoing effort to escape environmental responsibility, the city continues to push a false and dangerous dichotomy: It argues that it's impossible for a plan designed to promote density, growth and affordable housing to also anticipate and plan for associated adverse environmental and socioeconomic impacts. We vigorously disagree. We believe a plan informed by legitimate scientific review can do both and can do better.
We agree with the Star Tribune Editorial Board ("2040 is coming ...," Sept. 11) which urged "a revised plan that further addresses concerns while preserving broad goals," and "all sides to endeavor to reach that point as soon as possible." But the city is choosing no such route, and is appealing — yet again.
In a KSTP interview, Mayor Jacob Frey said: "'Needless to say, we are extremely disappointed in this ruling today and will continue fighting this legal battle." We plaintiffs are dismayed by the mayor's decision and by his (unsuccessful) personal lobbying efforts last legislative session to weaken MERA by exempting the city from an environmental review of its plan, as documented in his March 8, 2023 letter to the Senate in support of SF 2159.
In its amicus brief in support of our MERA claim, filed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy warns that the city's position, if adopted in revised state law, would run "contrary to the broad, remedial purpose of the statute" and "would be detrimental to the future application and enforcement of MERA." We share that concern. Weakening our state's first environmental law hurts everyone in Minnesota — not just the people of Minneapolis.
Minneapolis residents should ask Mayor Frey to spend city resources on a study that would actually improve the plan, rather than waste more time and taxpayer dollars on what is doomed to be yet another legal exercise in futility.
Rebecca Arons is executive director of Smart Growth Minneapolis.