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Minnesota’s planning laws lag behind the leaders

Unlike the Portland Metro Council, our Met Council does not have the benefit of a statewide land-use planning law.


Liberals frequently criticize the Metropolitan Council for not being aggressive enough in restricting growth on the outer edges of the seven-county area and preventing urban sprawl.

“I think the Met Council is not the cause of decentralization,” says former state Sen. Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota professor and author of several books on regional planning. “It just didn’t do its job to make things better.”

What the critics often overlook or minimize is that if the Met Council were more restrictive, there is nothing to prevent development from simply leapfrogging outside of the seven-county area into the adjacent counties where land tends to be cheaper and land-use requirements less restrictive.

Unlike the Portland Metro Council, to which the Twin Cities planning body often is compared, our Met Council does not have the benefit of a statewide land-use planning law that establishes “urban growth boundaries” for every city, protecting rural areas and preventing sprawl.

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Indeed, in the last several decades, Minnesota seems to have developed a political aversion of urban planning.Consider this:

  • State law does not require cities outside of the seven-county metro area to regulate land use.
  • A 1997 law that provided incentives for outstate cities and counties to develop comprehensive plans, and empowered the State Planning Agency to review and comment upon these plans, was largely repealed four years later.
  • The State Planning Agency, whose role included providing planning assistance to cities and counties, was eliminated in 2003 and a few remnants tucked away in the state Department of Administration.
  • No mechanism ever has been created to encourage coordination in growth planning between the Met Council and the fast-growing adjacent counties, many residents of which commute to jobs within the seven-county area.

I will confess that I do not share this aversion to planning. I covered the Metropolitan Council and the State Planning Agency during my years as a newspaper reporter and editorial writer, and later served as public affairs director for the Met Council. These agencies performed important roles in anticipating challenges and opportunities for the state and region.

As someone once observed, “It pays to plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.”

Not surprisingly, Minnesota’s planning laws have not fared well in several national evaluations. A 1999 study by the American Planning Association did not include Minnesota in the top tier of states with up-to-date laws that require local governments to adopt plans and give the state a role in their evaluation.

A more recent review by Douglas Porter, author of the 2008 book “Managing Growth in America’s Communities,” came to a similar conclusion.

Policy gaps

“Minnesota, for all of the good things it has done, has some very strange policy gaps,” says James Solem, a former official of both the State Planning Agency and the Met Council. “This is one of them.”

In 1997, then-state Rep. Joe Opatz, DFL-St. Cloud, led an effort to strengthen Minnesota’s planning laws. Opatz was frustrated by the “hodgepodge of local government units” that plagued the St. Cloud area and prevented effective planning, and he feared that St. Cloud could one day become part of one sprawling, undifferentiated metro area dominated by the Twin Cities.

Opatz’s bill established state goals for land-use planning and required outstate counties to adopt comprehensive plans, as cities within the metro area are required to do. It also provided for the creation of urban growth boundaries in rapidly developing areas and limited growth outside of these boundaries.

In the end, the Legislature decided to make the planning voluntary and dropped the idea of urban growth boundaries. However, lawmakers did approve statewide goals for local plans, provided financial incentives for counties to adopt plans and gave the State Planning Agency power to review them.

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“That’s as close as we have come to telling [outstate] communities that you ought to engage in some careful planning about what kind of community you want to be, rather than simply taking what comes,” says former Met Council Chair Curt Johnson, an urban affairs consultant and writer who has worked on projects in most of the nation’s major metro areas.

However, in 2001, with Republicans back in control of the House, lawmakers repealed major provisions of the new law that established planning goals, provided the financial incentives and gave the planning agency review powers.

Jim Mulder, former executive director of the Minnesota Association of Counties, says county officials resisted the land-planning law because they felt it required them to “give up a lot of their local decision-making authority” – that the State Planning Agency would “dictate” what would be in local plans.

“Some of our members were just livid about it,” Mulder recalls. “They thought it was communism.”

Oregon’s bold law

The history of planning in the state of Oregon is far different. In 1973, Republican Gov. Tom McCall championed the passage of a bold law that provided for the establishment of urban growth boundaries for every urban area in the state and limited development outside of those boundaries.

McCall and his legislative allies were concerned about suburban development needlessly gobbling up land in the agriculture-rich Willamette Valley. “The interests of Oregon today and in the future must be protected from grasping wastrels of the land,” he declared.

Four years later, the Oregon Legislature created Portland’s Metro Council and empowered the new, seven-member elected body to manage Portland’s urban growth boundary.

Under Oregon law, the Metro Council is responsible for maintaining a 20-year supply of land for future residential development inside the boundary. Every five years, the council is required to conduct a review of the land supply and, if necessary, expand the boundary to meet that requirement. Since the 1970s, the council says the boundary has been expanded about three dozen times, most often in increments of 20 acres or less.

The law is not without its critics, some of whom contend it has driven up the cost of land and, therefore, housing. But Curt Johnson, who has worked as a consultant in Oregon, says it has become “part of Oregon’s political culture.”

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“Seven times there have been public votes seeking to repeal that law, and seven times it has failed,” he says.

Moving creatively and cautiously

In the absence of any such laws, the Twin Cities Metro Council has had to move creatively and cautiously in its efforts to manage the region’s growth and limit sprawl. The council’s most powerful tool has been its control over the regional wastewater system. By policy, it has required suburban communities to achieve housing densities averaging at least three units per acre if they want regional sewer service.

Despite this policy, the Twin Cities region continues as one of the nation’s less densely developed metro areas. According to an analysis by the Met Council research staff, the Twin Cities currently averages 1,087 housing units per square mile (or 1.7 units per acre) in the urbanized portion of the region. That’s the seventh lowest of the nation’s major metro areas.

And, of course, urban development continues to jump across the boundaries of the seven-county metro area into the adjacent counties, though this trend now appears to be slowing.

During most of his eight years as Met Council chair, Peter Bell invited county commissioners from the adjacent counties to twice-yearly meetings to discuss growth-related issues and opportunities for greater cooperation. However, the participants were cautious and the meetings did not produce any major breakthroughs.

In her first 18 months as council chair, Susan Haigh, Bell’s successor, has yet to meet with representatives from the adjacent counties. However, a council spokesperson says she plans to reinstitute the meetings later this year.