Rebecca Terk, People Power V. Corporate Power

Keep The Teeth in Minnesota’s Interim Ordinance

In Big Stone County, where I live, a proposed aggregate quarry by a North Dakota-based corporation has united local residents around protecting the ancient granite outcrops that gave the county its name.

Strata Corp. applied for a conditional use permit at the county level just before Christmas, and though Strata’s own planning process has been six years in the making, citizen input was limited until the Planning & Zoning Commission’s initial public hearing on January 5th.

The room was packed with citizens who were reeling from what seemed to them like an incredibly fast process where there were many more questions than answers. Most residents had no idea the project was in the works until community members staged a grassroots organizing effort to take outreach into their own hands–writing letters to the commissioners and local papers, having one-on-one conversations with other residents, and collecting signatures on petitions in opposition to the project.

While the county’s permitting process continues despite growing opposition to the quarry from residents across the county and region, the Ortonville Township Board took action to protect residents in and around the proposed quarry site by passing an interim ordinance to place a moratorium on the project and to develop their own planning and zoning commission.

Education and action on potentially harmful developments is going on across the state–in southeastern Minnesota, counties have enacted interim ordinances to check the rapid expansion of frac sand mining, which is changing the face of the landscape and destroying productive agricultural land.

But legislation moving through the Minnesota House and Senate would diminish the power of local governments to protect their citizens and communities.

House File 389 and Senate File 270 weaken township, county and city local control.The proposals weaken the power of local governments to enact interim ordinances (also called moratoriums). 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 and potentially harmful proposals, especially those from corporate interests and outside investors, such as frac sand mines, big box stores like Wal-Mart or a large-scale factory farm. This bill favors corporate control over local control. [Action Alert: Legislation Weakening Local Control Moving Forward at State Capitol. Land Stewardship Project. 24 Feb 2012.]

Some have tried to frame this issue as a fight between liberals and conservatives or between pro-development and environmentalist factions. But the faces at public hearings have belied those characterizations–this is a fight for community that brings together citizens from all walks of life and all political perspectives.

The real fight is for local control in the face of corporate greed–about the right of citizens to determine what’s best for their communities through a democratic process vs. a desire by corporations to weaken that power and steamroll that process.

At the root of the debate is an age-old tension between the rights of business and the rights of neighbors within the unwieldy democratic process. Proponents of the new law, primarily Twin Cities builders, say developers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars planning a project deserve to have those investments protected from politically arbitrary decisions by government officials.

“It happens regularly,” said James Vagle, public policy director for the Building Association of the Twin Cities, which has been trying to get the law through the Legislature for several years. “We were following all the rules … and a project gets stymied.” [Marcotty, Josephine. “Should locals have the power to stall controversial projects?” Star Tribune. 21 Feb 2012.]

A developer’s complaint that they spent many years and dollars in the planning process and were “following all the rules” only to be  “stymied” by “politically arbitrary decisions” sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Except that “following all the rules” isn’t a pass to do whatever you want, especially when local governments are also following all the rules to ensure citizens have a say in the development of their community.

To suggest that because a corporation dots its i’s and crosses its t’s, it should get to build, mine, and blast whatever it wants wherever it wants flies in the face of our democracy. To suggest that a community whose citizens come together across socioeconomic and party lines to halt an undesirable project and begin a lengthy and complex process of planning for the future is “arbitrary” in any way shows ignorance of the democratic process at best–contempt at worst.

Instead of “playing by the rules,” corporations are trying to change the rules–to take the teeth out of local control via the interim ordinance and make it virtually impossible for smaller units of government and the citizens they represent to exercise their right to determine what kind of community they live in and how their resources are used.

What you can do to protect local democracy and your community:

To learn more about the fight for people power vs. corporate power at the state capitol, to find out who has supported this democracy-weakening legislation, and to find contact information for your legislators, see Land Stewardship Project’s latest Action Alert on the subject, or contact LSP’s Bobby King: bking@landstewardshipproject.org or 612-722-6377.

Rebecca Terk is a community-based food systems organizer for the Land Stewardship Project. Her original blog post can be read here.

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