Transcript: Protecting Your Community's River (MRCCA, part 2)

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Hello, this is Colleen from Friends of the Mississippi River, here for another video about how you can help protect the Mississippi River and our national park.

Today we’ll be talking about the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area rules designed to protect the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities metro area. Each city and township in the Critical Area is adopting local ordinances, or laws, to guide their riverfront in alignment with these rules.

In 1976, the state of Minnesota created the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, or MRCCA, to protect and preserve 72 miles of river and shoreline through 25 cities and townships in the Twin Cities area. On this map the river is blue and the Critical Area boundaries are shown in green. Our national park, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, follows the same boundaries.

In recent years, the state worked through an extensive stakeholder process to develop updated, science-based rules for managing the important resources in the river corridor. From 2020-2022, each city and township in the Critical Area must adopt ordinances that guide land use and development along the river. These ordinances must meet the standards specified in the state rules, but communities can also incorporate their own goals, ideas, or additional standards. That’s where your involvement can make a difference. We’ll discuss that more in another video.

MRCCA rules protect and enhance several important qualities and functions of the Mississippi River, from historic resources, to beautiful parks, to vibrant downtown areas.

Because the areas surrounding the river are so diverse, there are six different land use designations, or districts, throughout the corridor. These different districts reflect the character of these areas and provide guidance for existing and planned development. Some elements of the MRCCA rules are the same throughout the entire Critical Area. Others, like building height and setback limits or open space requirements, vary by district.

Preserving open space is required in development projects. Primary Conservation Areas are prioritized for preservation. These include bluffs and shorelines, gorges, floodplains, native plant communities, tree canopies, and more. Each community has already documented these special areas.

Public access, such as trails, neighborhood connections, and boat access, is another priority. After all, this is a national park.

Scenic views are a significant aspect of the new rules. Height and setback limits, which vary by district, help protect special areas. You can see some examples here on the bottom of what has happened without sufficient protections in place, when buildings are too tall or too close to the river in scenic areas. __Communities must put processes in place for considering variances or conditional use permits, which allow flexibility for development to exceed some standards if certain conditions are met. These might include a written report and view analysis of the proposed project’s impact, along with mitigation strategies like using vegetation to screen buildings.

Bluffs and shorelines are often fragile, and protecting them is critical to protecting our water quality and wildlife habitat. New standards will keep structures away from the river's edge or steep slopes, where they can accelerate erosion like shown in the top picture. The rules also provide management practices for landowners. The middle photo here is an example of a shoreline that balances access with land protection. The bottom photo, not so much. The new rules will better standardize such things throughout our entire riverfront.

Science-based management practices are also included for areas beyond the river’s edge. Landowners can still maintain existing lawns, but permits will be required for some things beyond usual maintenance. Clear-cutting healthy native plant communities is prohibited.

All of these rules that protect shoreline vegetation will help improve the Mississippi’s water quality. Stormwater management standards are an additional boost.

Last but certainly not least, the MRCCA rules require communities to identify important historic and cultural resources, and to prioritize their protection. People may have lived along the river here for 10,000 years or more—that’s a lot of history and culture. Many places along the Mississippi River in the Twin Cities hold deep spiritual significance to some people.

The Dakota people have lived here for hundreds of years, well before European colonization. They believe that the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers is the birthplace of the Dakota people. They call this place Bdote, and it’s shown in the bottom photo here. This is just one of many important sites in the Critical Area.

If you’re interested learning more about anything I’ve discussed here today, or if you want to get involved in your community’s ordinance development process, visit the Friends of the Mississippi River website at www.fmr.org/river-rules. We have lots of resources available there as well as contact information for our staff. Thank you!

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