Cities throughout Minnesota are busy updating their comprehensive plans, a process that typically occurs every 10 years or so. As a reminder, comprehensive plans serve as the visionary roadmap for a city’s intended long-term growth; the implementing tools are the zoning ordinance, subdivision ordinance and similar policies. Of course, cities have the discretion to amend their comp plans any time they choose to, provided they follow proper procedures in doing so, but most elect not to do so because of the burden it imposes on staff.

I imagine one of the hardest tasks confronting a city official when considering a comp plan update relates to a proposed land use change that radically departs from the existing plan, possibly catching affected residents totally unaware or worse. This dilemma occurs especially in growing cities in which large sections of historically agriculture land is being considered for inclusion under an active development designation, such as commercial or residential. It also occurs when cities are seeking to redevelop a blighted area, perhaps by moving from commercial to residential or vice versa.

We’ve all attended the meeting at which a land use change is being debated and residents object to the change on the basis of its impact on their neighborhood and lifestyle. Inevitably the resident will note that when they bought their home they checked the city land use maps to confirm they were buying adjacent to property guided for a low or no-impact development; the proposed change, if adopted, will have an impact. It’s a fair point and yet we all know (well, maybe we don’t know) that owning one’s own property does not guarantee any sort of long-term use of another’s property. Were it any other way we would never see another new development occur anywhere.

Of course, we’d all love to preserve natural vistas, tree stands and marshy meadows that give us personal enjoyment. One way to do this is to buy the desirable property containing such features! Absent that step, possibly the city could be convinced to buy it; not usually viable either. In the end, the city is legally entitled to consider and act on land use changes that support future growth desired by the city (actually the underlying landowner’s consent is not even required – the city can do it unilaterally over the landowner’s objection).

Some cities embrace change and see value in growth and redevelopment. It funds infrastructure, schools, parks and makes for a more vibrant community. Growth begets growth. Others object to growth and prefer to preserve the existing character of their respective cities in order to protect small-town charm, rural character, large-lot development pattern, etc. For this latter group of cities, the worry is not about a land use change that triggers expansive growth, but rather a change that impedes growth that was formerly contemplated by landowners based on an existing plan. Plenty of speculative investment in real estate occurs based on one comp plan, only to see that investment quashed, based on a change in direction. We’ve seen this “growth-no growth” whipsaw play out in several semi-rural cities in our metropolitan region.

As others have noted in this blog, one way to get ahead of the surprise element of a planning change is to participate in a city’s comp plan review process, either as an appointed committee member or as an observer. This, of course, becomes troublesome because it often involves frequent daytime and nighttime meetings that are not easy to attend as a volunteer. Short of that, paying attention to a city website and registering for notices of future meetings or actions is a good fall-back option.