Environmental Groups Win Court Battle Against the Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan

A court ruling invalidated one of the most innovative comprehensive plans in recent memory, and now the city of Minneapolis must revert to its previous comprehensive plan.

3 minute read

September 6, 2023, 9:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


The landmark Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, famous for eliminating single-family zoning citywide, is no longer the plan of record in Minneapolis, reports Susan Du for the Star Tribune. The city now has 60 days to revert back to its 2030 Plan, according to a recent court ruling.

The same environmental organizations that have been opposing the plan since 2018 have managed to invalidate the landmark plan. Hennepin County District Judge Joseph R. Klein made the most recent ruling—the most recent in a string of rulings that has slowed and obstructed the approval and implementation of the plan over the same period.

Of relevance far beyond the borders of the state of Minnesota, is the decision by Judge Klein that the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA) applies to local comprehensive plans. The city had been arguing that “municipal comprehensive plans — big-vision documents — should not be subject to the type of environmental review that could be conducted on individual projects with clear specifications to assess,” reports Du.

Judge Klein’s ruling also decides, moreover, that Minneapolis 2040 would create environmental harm. “This court finds that any ongoing implementation of the residential development portions of the City's 2040 Plan is an ongoing violation of [the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act,” wrote Judge Klein in the decision. “Plaintiffs have outlined numerous environmental impairments that are likely to result by virtue of the full implementation of the 2040 Plan. The court finds that such damage to the environment would be an irreparable harm to the environment, the protection of which is viewed by this state as being of paramount concern.”

Environmental organizations, including Smart Growth Minneapolis and Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, have been arguing for years now that the “cumulative impact of the comprehensive plan would pollute public waters while reducing green space for wildlife,” according to Du.

Add Minneapolis 2040 to the large pile of an innovative plan to allow more residential density undone by the consequences of environmental legislation—a familiar narrative in California and Washington—but one of questionable scientific logic. Research has repeatedly shown that higher density residential neighborhoods encourage walking and other forms of non-automobile mobility, which can lower greenhouse gas emissions as well as air and other forms of pollution, while suburban development patterns are harmful enough to erase any potential benefit from more efficient urban spaces.

Yet environmental laws are frequently wielded to prevent any form of development other than automobile dependent single-family detached housing, and sometimes also for the sole purpose of extracting legal settlements from developers. None of the environmental benefits of density are mentioned in the article by Du, nor are the pernicious applications of the environmental laws around the country. It’s unclear from the article if the city argued against the complaint that Minneapolis 2040 would be worse for the environment than the previous comprehensive plan.

According to the article, the plan “garnered controversy from residents concerned that the plan would enrich rental property developers without growing opportunities for homeownership, where Minnesota has lingering racial disparities.” Du quotes a representative of the plaintiff’s legal team in describing the ruling as a victory for racial justice. “The city now has an opportunity to create a more inclusive plan that factors in the unique needs of communities of color and environmental impacts to Minneapolis residents,” says Levy Armstrong.

For more on the key moments of the history of Minneapolis 2040, see previous articles from Planetizen, below.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023 in Star Tribune

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