DNR sues City of Minneapolis, resident after approval of plans for home in protected area

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is suing the City of Minneapolis and a resident after the city approved plans for a housing project on a protected bluff near the Mississippi River.

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the DNR accused the city of violating federal, state and local laws when the Minneapolis City Council’s Planning Commission approved two variances that allow a property owner to build a home directly on a bluff on the Mississippi River. A variance is when the city’s Planning Commission makes an exception to use a plot of property despite zoning requirements.

In 1988, Congress established the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) in an effort to protect the 72 miles of river and riparian lands in the Twin Cities metro area. In Minnesota, the DNR is tasked with overseeing the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA), which is included in the MNRRA. The state and city rules aimed at protecting the area don’t allow building structures on a bluff or within 40 feet of the top of a bluff.

Additionally, the city’s Shoreland Ordinance prohibits building a structure on a steep slope, which is defined as a slope of 18% or more and includes the bluff in question.

The property owner initially applied for the variances in 2021, asking the city for permission to build a structure on a bluff, with a deck built into the bluff. At that time, the city denied his request because it didn’t satisfy the rules outlined in the MRCCA.

In 2023, he submitted the same proposal to build a structure on the bluff. The council’s Planning Commission again denied the variance after finding the proposal still didn’t align with the MRCCA. However, on appeal, “the City inexplicably reversed and granted the two variances without adequate findings to justify a reversal or to indicate how the previously rejected plans were suddenly now consistent with MRCCA ordinance,” the DNR’s lawsuit states.

In court documents, the DNR alleges that the city approved the variances only after learning that the land could potentially be transferred to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) in the future.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for MPRB’s “eventual acquisition” of the property was in the works, according to court filings, and council members even asked if the approval of the variances could be tied to the MOU, but the committee attorney expressed concerns over that. It was ultimately delayed but a later meeting resulted in the committee finding the MOU was “exactly what we asked for” and approved the variances.

Shortly after the reversal, the federal government issued a finding of noncompliance to the City of Minneapolis for allowing development on top of a protected bluff, which means the city is ineligible for further assistance under MNRRA until returning to compliance, according to the lawsuit.

In its findings, the federal government said the city’s decision, “Creates a permanent impact on resources protected in the MNRRA Comprehensive Plan,” adding that the proposal would “place a residential structure directly over a known and protected bluff within the MNRRA, even though the structure could be set back and fit on the parcel without permanently impacting the bluff.”

The federal government also noted that the city’s approval of the proposal violates its 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which aims, in part, to protect the bluffs.

The area where the property owner proposed to build a structure — between River Terrace Apartments and Marshall Concrete Products — is subject to additional protections because it is in a critical area known as a river neighborhood district, as defined in Minnesota administrative rules.

The DNR is asking the court to declare the city’s decision unreasonable and capricious, in addition to requiring the city and property owner to conform to the Shoreland Ordinance and the MRCCA.

“The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources takes very seriously its responsibility to protect the bluffs and shorelands of Minnesota’s public waters, including those areas within the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area,” the DNR said in a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS on Thursday. “To that end, the DNR always seeks to work with a project proposer and the local government to find an approach that meets the requirements of the state shoreland protection laws. On the occasion a local governmental unit grants a variance contrary to those requirements, the DNR has the right to appeal the decision in order to uphold the required protections.”

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS has also reached out to the City of Minneapolis and will update accordingly.