First on the Agenda Thursday: Weaken Local Control

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Well, that didn’t take long. Tomorrow, at the very first meeting of the Minnesota House Government Operations and Elections Committee, lawmakers will take up House File 389, which weakens township, county and city local control. This legislation needs to be stopped before it even gets out of the starting gate. For details on how to send a clear message to the Capitol that weakening local democracy should be off the table, click here.

House File 389 will make it more difficult for citizens who want their township, county or city to take action to protect the community from unanticipated, harmful development. The bill does this by weakening the power of local governments to enact interim ordinances. An interim ordinance allows local governments to quickly put a temporary freeze on major development.

This power is essential when the community is caught off-guard by unanticipated proposals, especially those from outside corporate interests and outside investors, such as big box stores like Wal-Mart, a large-scale factory farm or a garbage burner. An interim ordinance maintains the status quo and gives the community time to review or create the appropriate zoning ordinances.

Interim ordinances are a part of strong local democracy and corporate interests—with the help of their allies in Saint Paul—have attacked this power repeatedly. This year is no different, and the speed with which anti-local control forces are introducing this bill indicates how desperate they’ve become. The fact is rural citizens have made it clear time and time again that they value local control, so perhaps corporate interests hope they can strike early before anyone notices.

But people are going to notice because the power to enact an interim ordinance matters. For example, communities in southeast Minnesota have been bombarded by outside corporate interests wanting to mine for sand to be used in frac mining. These mining proposals are much different in scale and scope from the aggregate mining that takes place there now. In response to citizen concerns, Wabasha, Goodhue and Winona counties enacted interim ordinances that put a moratorium on frac sand mining while they study the issue to see if their current ordinances are sufficient to deal with this new type of excavation.

For an indication of what happens when local control goes away, take a drive through rural Wisconsin, where frac sand mining is tearing up the blufflands and trucks are booming down gravel roads.

Under House File 389, merely applying for a permit exempts a proposed development from any future interim ordinance. The problems is all too often neighbors don’t get any information about a project until after the permit has been applied for. When that happens, an interim ordinance may be needed to freeze the status quo and create time to assess the situation.

The proposed legislation requires a two-thirds vote (a super majority) to enact an interim ordinance. Currently, an interim ordinance can be enacted by a simple majority — that’s how democratic rights should work. There is no reason to make adopting an interim ordinance so difficult.

In addition, HF 389 slows the process for enacting an interim ordinance by mandating public notice before an interim ordinance can be enacted. In many cases, a local unit of government — particularly a township — does not get complete information on a proposed development until shortly before approval. In those cases, there can be legitimate concerns that the local government needs to address. When that happens, an interim ordinance must be enacted quickly to be effective.

The 2012 session of the Minnesota Legislature is supposed to be about creating  jobs, not about sacrificing our communities’ ability to control their own destinies. Jumping the gun doesn’t suddenly make a bad idea a good one. In fact, it may make it more dangerous than ever.


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