In late 2018, the City of Minneapolis made national headlines with the passage of a comprehensive plan. Local planning documents rarely attract such attention, but the Minneapolis 2040 Plan was unusually bold. Among an extensive array of policy changes, the plan committed Minneapolis to eliminating single-family-only zoning, eliminating parking minimums, establishing a floor minimum for downtown development, and significantly upzoning core neighborhoods and major transit corridors. While a few cities had enacted some of these policies, Minneapolis stood out by approving them all at once in one document that was hailed by observers across the political spectrum.
The broad strokes and minute details of the 2040 Plan and its subsequent implementation were motivated by concerns about preserving housing affordability, eroding racial segregation, and reducing per-capita carbon emissions, which resonated in a proudly progressive city like Minneapolis. But the consensus was not universal, and what started as a quixotic, Hail Mary lawsuit to block the plan's passage has mushroomed into a major multi-year legal confrontation that has garnered less in the way of national headlines even as it has put the 2040 Plan — and comprehensive planning writ large — at risk.
Alleged Harm to the Environment
Opponents of the 2040 Plan took advantage of a Minnesota law entitled the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), which allows any citizen to file a challenge to any action or decision that they allege will harm the environment. In this case, the plaintiffs hired an outside expert who assessed that if every single-family home in the city were replaced instantly with a triplex, the result would be environmental damage.
That the legality of an entire comprehensive plan (including ample policies aimed at mitigating the impacts of greater density and a robust record documenting the environmental benefits of urban infill) might fall upon a single narrow hypothetical will surely strike planners as absurd, but following several rounds of litigation, the Minnesota Supreme Court allowed the lawsuit to proceed and the district court judge handling the case surprisingly embraced the plaintiff's argument.
The 2040 Plan was enjoined in 2022 until Minneapolis completed a formal environmental review. After a state appeals court remanded the case for further review, the district court again arrived at the same conclusion, with hardly any further analysis. As of this writing, Minneapolis is again appealing.
Some of the difficulty in resolving this case has come because many parties, most importantly the City of Minneapolis and its allies, plainly did not take this lawsuit seriously in its early stages. But the legal battle is now fully joined.
Amicus Brief in Support of City
In October 2023, the Minnesota Chapter of APA filed one of five amicus briefs (a way for a third party to weigh in on ongoing litigation) with the appellate court in support of the city's position. APA Minnesota's brief highlighted the nature of comprehensive plans to the judges, emphasizing that they are integrated documents that cannot be properly evaluated by extracting one policy area and analyzing it in isolation.
The chapter's brief also emphasized clear faults in the district court's understanding of the 2040 Plan, the report compiled by the plaintiff's expert, and the judge's most recent order which was unspecific and betrayed a lack of familiarity with land use policy.
Briefs from organizations like the Sierra Club and the local Metropolitan Planning Organization persuasively called into question key assumptions from the plaintiffs that were adopted by the district court judge.
APA Minnesota has also acted to raise the issue at Minnesota's state legislature. A landmark law from 1976, the Metropolitan Land Planning Act, mandates that municipalities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area develop new comprehensive plans, in congruence with an overall regional plan, every decade.
If these plans are to be vulnerable to nuisance environmental lawsuits, then every city and town in the region will be forced to complete their 2050 plans while constantly looking over their shoulder and potentially compromising policy to appease their most litigious residents. This is not what the state legislature intended.
During the 2023 legislative session, an ad hoc coalition led by APA Minnesota helped place the issue on the legislative agenda. The chapter's president and legislative and law committee co-chair both testified before a state senate committee in support of exempting comprehensive plans from MERA review.
This fix was adopted as part of a housing omnibus bill by the state house, but ultimately was not carried through the legislative process that resulted in a final bill ratified by both chambers.
While the particulars of 2040 Plan case and the MERA law are unique to Minnesota, they strike chords that should be familiar to planners around the country. In an age in which social issues like housing segregation and environmental issues like climate change are reproduced by the status quo, cities and states must confront the legacies of policies, laws, and administrative traditions that are aimed at blocking change instead of building a better future. As demonstrated in this example, these tools — however well-intentioned — are ripe for abuse.
Whether through the ongoing court case or the 2024 legislative session, APA Minnesota is taking a leading role in educating judges and policymakers about the importance of comprehensive planning, the appropriate application of environmental review, and the importance of policies like urban infill that improve affordability, reduce racial disparities, and slash per-capita carbon emissions.
With help from its pro-bono legal representation, legislative allies, and planner members, the chapter is committed to resolving this issue within Minnesota.
Top image: iStock / Getty Images Plus – Kubrak78
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Schieferdecker, an APA MN member and urban design and transportation planner who works in the city of Minneapolis