Like many states, Minnesota has an automatic approval statute, or “shot clock,” to protect applicants for zoning and land use applications.  Minnesota Statutes section 15.99 requires that local land use authorities must act within 60 days of receiving a completed zoning application.  If the government fails to act within that time frame, the application is automatically approved.  But what happens during a global pandemic when government employees (and everyone else) must shelter in place for two weeks, six weeks, or even longer?

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Tim Walz declared an initial two-week “stay at home” order from March 27 through April 10, 2020, which has since been extended to more than five weeks, to May 4, 2020.  With no clear end of the pandemic in sight there may be real implications for land use applications under Minnesota’s automatic approval statute.

The governor’s order requires workers to stay home, if possible, but local governments can decide which of their workers are essential.  Most jurisdictions are still working to process applications, but many zoning applications require public hearings before a planning commission or city council.  As governments scramble to adjust public hearings to safer telephonic or video formats, many hearings have been delayed, which means applications have been delayed, thereby risking automatic approval when applications cannot be acted upon in a timely manner. 

Some cities have put legally dubious moratoria in place, temporarily prohibiting the acceptance of new zoning applications.  But as of today, local governments must still comply with the 60-day decision-making period.  Minnesota cities are actively lobbying for an extension of the shot clock, whether by executive order or legislation; however, an extension should be unnecessary given that governments can already extend the shot clock in writing an additional 60-days if need be.

Absent intervention at the state level, the 60-day shot clock still applies.Under the circumstances, applicants should anticipate that local governments will extend the decision-making period to 120-days.While there is no mechanism for governments to extend the period further, applicants can do so in writing; such extensions should be approached cautiously and should never be open-ended.