23 June 2022
Minneapolis officials have requested a District Court issue an injunction halting an order — which blocks them from enforcing the city’s 2040 plan — from taking effect as its appeal is pending.
Last week, a Hennepin County district judge ruled in favor of groups who argued that the city’s long-range plan eliminating single-family zoning would be a threat to the environment. Judge Joseph Klein issued an order barring the city from enforcing the plan until it meets certain requirements outlined in the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) or “prevails in establishing an affirmative defense.”
The city filed an appeal and an injunction request days after that ruling. In the 23-page motion and memorandum, the city argued that the order has already created “unnecessary” disruption and uncertainty to long-planned work and has forced city officials to delay consideration of several rezoning projects. Enforcement of the order could also open the door to increased lawsuits from property owners and developers to allow for their projects to proceed, the city argued.
In the request, the city has asked the court to determine the matter without a hearing on an expedited basis to mitigate those issues.
Mayor Jacob Frey was not available for an interview Thursday, but said in an e-mailed statement that the city will fight the court’s ruling “because it’s the right thing to do for our city.”
The city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan drew national attention when it passed in 2018 and was quickly dubbed one of the most progressive housing policies in the nation. It eliminated single-family zoning, clearing the way for more duplexes and triplexes to be built. It allowed for the creation of “indoor villages” to increase the number of beds available for people experiencing homelessness. It also laid the foundation on which the city’s transportation plan, zoning updates and a slew of other new ordinances were crafted, including those that would encourage wildlife and habitat protections.
The city contends that allowing the order to go into effect would roll back those initiatives and protections, requiring significant staff time and effort to bring the city’s land use ordinances back to the status quo. It also argues that the order also exposes Minneapolis to multiple lawsuits from agencies and other actors seeking to compel it to comply with state statutes and city ordinances.
“A stay would allow these protections to continue, and possibly an ultimately more narrowly-crafted Order should one be determined necessary on appeal,” the city said.
A trio of environmental groups — Smart Growth Minneapolis, the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds — sued the city, arguing that the 2040 plan allowing the increase in density would likely pollute natural resources because of the increase in hard surfaces, soil erosion and increased runoff, among other adverse effects. The goal was to get the city to conduct an environmental review.
The city refuted claims that population increase would be the outcome of the plan and argued that environmental reviews were meant for individual projects and not comprehensive plans guiding the overall direction of development. A Hennepin County district judge previously dismissed the lawsuit, but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed that decision and remanded the case back to the District Court after holding that MERA does in fact apply to city comprehensive plans.
Klein issued summary judgment last week in favor of the environmental groups, writing: “The City has not put forth any evidence showing that a full build-out will not have any of the potential adverse environmental impacts.”
He criticized the city’s defense for “vaguely” dismissing the risks that the plan presents to the environment by arguing “a full build-out of almost 150,000 new residential units is extremely unlikely to occur,” though that is what the plan authorizes throughout its duration.
The groups’ attorneys said Thursday that it’s highly unlikely that the court will reverse the ruling, given that the city failed to prove “irreparable” or “serious” injury. The only injury the city identified in its motion is administrative time and costs to undo things they have created, attorney Jack Perry said. He added that the city has until Aug. 15 to comply with the order. Otherwise, it can’t approve any land use or any residential development in Minneapolis.
“They have already lost and they can ask the judge to reconsider and redo it, but the judge took the full 90 days to review everything and issued a multipage opinion,” Perry said. “There is no other way to describe this other than a self-imposed burden. Certainly not irreparable harm.”