Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Conservation Districts - to the "pro" side

For months now, I have been working with Planning staff and interested stakeholders on an ordinance that would open up the opportunity for communities to create “conservation districts.”  A conservation district is a tool that a given area could use to, as the ordinance says, “perpetuate and proliferate” its notable visual character.

My work on this has been driven by the experience of the Prospect Park neighborhood with the existing process for designating historic districts.  There was substantial interest in Prospect Park in creating a local historic district, but it turned out that the regulations such a district would have placed on individual property owners were more stringent than most people in the neighborhood were willing to accept.  More importantly, there was little flexibility in crafting guidelines for this local district that would meet the needs of the community while not placing onerous requirements on property owners.

My hope is that the conservation district concept can be a tool for neighborhoods like Prospect Park that want some level of historic preservation, but want more flexible design guidelines than standard historic preservation can allow.  I view it as a middle ground between full historic preservation and no protections at all for historic neighborhoods – a middle ground that might be more likely to be used.

I have heard a few reactions from supporters of the conservation district ordinance about ways in which they don’t think it goes far enough.  One is about the high bar of community support to create a conservation district.  Another is that conservation districts might not be a tool for restraining density.  My thoughts on each are below the fold.

On the “high bar” concern: forming a conservation district would involve a group of property owners coming together to agree that they are willing to surrender some of their property rights in order to ensure that the essential character of their neighborhood is conserved.  This is a big thing to ask people to do, and we should not take it lightly.  That is why I strongly support having a high bar of property owner consensus for creating a conservation district.  The current ordinance requires 66% of property owners to opt in.  There’s nothing magical about that number; if someone can come up with a different, better way to ensure that the property owners impacted by a conservation district come to a broad consensus in favor of it, I’m willing to listen.  But I am convinced that in order to be successful, a conservation district must be supported by more than a bare majority of the affected property owners.

On the “growth” concern: you’re right to have this concern because conservation districts are not intended to block density.  Conservation districts are intended to preserve visual character, not act as a deterrent to growth.  Districts could actually be used to retain existing levels of density that are higher than what the zoning code would allow!

I want to be crystal clear about this: the conservation district ordinance is not designed to act as an “end run” around other land use policies like the comprehensive plan or zoning code.  It’s explicitly stated in the ordinance (emphasis added):

Design guidelines shall not be adopted or applied so as to prohibit uses allowed by the zoning code.  Design guidelines regulating building bulk may be more restrictive than the zoning code when based upon the notable attributes, as identified in the conservation district’s study.  Design guidelines shall be limited to regulating some or all exterior elements solely for the purpose of perpetuating and proliferating the district’s notable attributes, as identified in the district’s study.”

If you’re hoping that the conservation district ordinance will be a way to block uses – like increased residential density – that are allowed by zoning, you’re going to be disappointed.  It’s just not the purpose.


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