Cities torch state zoning bill overriding local control

There’s probably nothing off-limits when it comes to state government’s insatiable appetite for ever more influence over Minnesotans’ daily lives. But local control over city residential zoning laws and land use came pretty close — until now.

One of the most hyped bills of the legislative session essentially overrides local zoning laws in the name of the unassailable campaign to provide affordable housing at any cost, including local control. The legislation would allow multi-unit dwellings in single family neighborhoods, regardless of city zoning laws and impact on property owners. Advocates even coined a catchy name for it, “the missing middle” housing that’s bigger than a single family home but smaller than an apartment complex.

The League of Minnesota Cities hasn’t minced words over how bad of an idea the influential advocacy group considers lawmakers’ power grab to be.

Zoning is hyper local. Cities across the state have already put in years of work to address zoning that involves robust community engagement. State-mandated frameworks should not replace their community-specific efforts.

One-size-fits-all mandates will not solve the housing crisis. What works in a larger Twin Cities metro community to address housing needs is completely different than what works in Greater Minnesota and vice versa.

The notion hasn’t gone over any better with many elected officials in cities across the state. The Baxter City Council has carefully tracked the momentum of the proposed zoning end run on their authority. The Brainerd Dispatch says Baxter city councilors put St. Paul on notice of their strong opposition to a concept that completely undermines local governments.

“But it’s been something that’s kind of stuck in my craw that the state is considering doing basically a zoning ordinance for the entire state. And a lot of the decision-makers couldn’t pick Baxter off the map,” [Baxter City Councilor Zach] Tabatt said.

Mayor Darrel Olson noted they’ve been receiving updates from the League of Minnesota Cities.

“The topic of local control as it relates to local authority, in particular use zoning is not new, but it has gained traction,” said Brad Chapulis, Baxter city administrator.

Suburban elected officials complained to MinnPost about being blindsided by the introduction of such a far-reaching proposal.

“They had not looped in city stakeholders, the people who are supposed to be setting policy,” [Lakeville Mayor Luke] Hellier said. “It was such a wholesale change with how cities do business when it comes to growth.” Requiring a fourplex on a lot that had water and sewer designed for a single house is a big change, he said.

Hellier said he was also concerned with the limitations on public participation. 

The legislation got off to a quick start in the authors’ House and Senate committees. But the overwhelming pushback gradually gained momentum to the point where legislators saw the writing on the wall, supposedly tabling the proposal for this year.

“It didn’t have enough support from the people actually doing the work on the ground to make the bill happen,” Hellier said of the decision to stop working on the bills this session.

No doubt they’ll be back. This time, however, proponents concerned about the missing middle were missing something else — the support of local officials whose constituents would be most affected by their controversial proposals.