Transcript: Protecting Your Community's River (MRCCA, part 3)

(Video on YouTube; opens in a new window)

Hi again; this is Colleen from Friends of the Mississippi River. Today I’m talking about how to get involved in your community’s work to develop its new riverfront protection laws.

These new laws, or ordinances, are for protecting the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area, or MRCCA. 25 cities and townships along the Mississippi River through the Twin Cities will be writing and adopting their own ordinances. If you aren’t familiar with MRCCA, I’d recommend watching our other short videos about the MRCCA ordinance first.

Each of the 25 cities and townships in the Critical Area will follow a similar process for adopting their ordinance. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is assisting with this process, and they’ve created a schedule for when each community will start its work. We have the schedule on our website and I’ll share a link at the end of the video. All ordinances should be adopted by the end of 2022.

Each community will start by drafting their ordinance. A staff person or consultant will do this part and will be the technical expert to advise the planning commission and city council. They’ll be required to hold a public hearing, during which anyone can come speak at city hall or submit written comments before the meeting. This is an important window in which to share your thoughts, and we’ll talk more about that in a moment.

The role of the planning commission might vary a bit by city or township, but each city council will have to approve its own ordinance. The DNR will also have to approve each one. Overall, this process could take a few months or a whole year. It will vary by community. Once the ordinance is adopted, it becomes enforceable law.

One great way to stay informed about this process is to sign up as an FMR River Guardian at www.fmr.org/joinriverguardians. We’ll contact you when your city or township is working on its MRCCA ordinance and tell you about opportunities to be involved.

There are many ways you can be part of this process—and it’s easy. The best thing you can do is to help your city’s leaders know that the MRCCA ordinance is important to you and your neighbors, and ask them to be thoughtful and thorough in their process. It might help to share your personal connection to the river, or to tell a story about why you think this matters for your community. Don’t worry about being an expert on the ordinance. FMR is always here to assist you, your neighbors, and your city staff and elected officials with the technical details.

Whether your community is actively developing its ordinance yet or not, you can start letting them know that you care about this process. Just send them a note or mention it the next time you run into them at a community event. You can also monitor your city’s planning commission and council meeting schedules and agendas to know when the ordinance will come up for a hearing or vote. City staff will usually be able to tell you this, or you can sign up for e-mails about meetings. Most communities have this service. We can help you figure out who to contact or where to sign up.

Beyond speaking with your city leaders, you can also get other residents involved to raise awareness and interest. Spread the word through a letter to your local newspaper, social media, or neighborhood events. You might even want to organize some folks around making a specific request for your ordinance. We’ll talk more about what those might be in a moment.

The DNR has provided a good model ordinance that most communities will use as a template, but there’s room for each community to add some of its own ideas. Here are some ways to begin thinking about how your community might want to incorporate extra protections for special features. Consider what makes your riverfront special or unique, and then ask your city to find ways to make sure those features are protected.

Now let’s talk a little more about specific things you might want to advocate for in your community. Every city and township along the Mississippi River is unique, and so their ordinances are going to reflect that local character. I’m going to review these briefly, but our website has documents that walk through the model ordinance and optional provisions more thoroughly, as well as contact information for FMR staff who are happy to discuss these with you.

These first optional provisions have to do with creating and protecting more open space beyond the state minimums. These might make sense if your community has areas of undeveloped land near the river that you’d like to see protected.

This section is important, as structure height and setback requirements will likely be the most-sought exceptions by people wanting to build or expand structures in the Critical Area. These exceptions are called variances and Conditional Use Permits, or CUPs. Communities should create very clear processes and parameters for how these will be considered. They can require that structures only violate one rule at a time, for instance by not allowing a building that’s too tall to also be too close to the shoreline. Communities can also consider prohibiting certain exceptions altogether.

Height and setback requirements are critical to protecting scenic views and the experience of the river as a public and natural place. That’s why it’s so important for communities to consider this part of their ordinances so carefully. Here are some other ways height and setback requirements can be protected.

Here are a few more ideas for communities. Because the Mississippi River is an important bird migration flyway, it’s a good place to make structures safer for birds. In cities where most of the riverfront consists of single-family homes, adding clear parameters around things like decks, patios, and fences can limit neighbor disputes. And all communities should consider lengthening the notification and review timelines for riverfront development plans. That gives more time for all stakeholders to consider how proposals might fit in with existing development and impact the river.

That’s it for now, but Friends of the Mississippi River has a lot more information about this topic on our website. Just visit www.fmr.org/river-rules for more videos, detailed information about the model ordinance and optional provisions, and the River Guardians signup form. We’re grateful you’re joining in our work to protect the river, and we look forward to working with you and your neighbors.

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