Originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of Bench & Bar of Minnesota Environmental Law Update, Minnesota State Bar Association.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently dealt another blow to the City of Minneapolis’ 2040 Comprehensive Plan with its December 27, 2022, order. See State by Smart Growth Minneapolis v. City of Minneapolis, No. 27-CV-18-19587, 2022 WL 17957328 (Minn. Ct. App. Dec. 27, 2022). Since the Plan’s passage in 2018, three groups sued the City (collectively referred to as “Smart Growth”), arguing the Plan could cause environmental harm and suggesting the City conduct an analysis under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (“MERA”) before any implementation of the Plan. The recent court of appeals decision, following an appeal from the Minnesota Supreme Court’s 2021 remand, upheld the district court’s grant of Smart Growth’s motion for summary judgment, while reversing the grant of injunctive relief and remanding back to the district court for further proceedings. See, e.g., State by Smart Growth Minneapolis v. City of Minneapolis, 954 N.W.2d 584, 587-88 (Minn. 2021).
Under the burden shifting framework of MERA, Smart Growth was required to present a prima facie case showing (1) the existence of a protectable natural resource; and (2) that the City’s conduct is likely to cause the impairment of that resource. If met, the City then must rebut Smart Growth’s case or present an affirmative defense. The City acknowledged that the Plan does implicate protectable natural resources, but asserted Smart Growth failed to establish the second element – namely that Smart Growth’s allegations relied on an assumption of a full build-out of the Plan – and not a gradual implementation on a project-by-project basis. The district court found for Smart Growth and granted its motion for summary judgment, relying on an expert report that suggested a full build-out would cause material adverse environmental effects. The court also required the City to “immediately cease all present action in furtherance of the 2040 Plan,” until the City satisfied its MERA obligation of rebutting Smart Growth’s prima facie case or prevailed under an affirmative defense.
Following the 2021 Minnesota Supreme Court decision, the appellate court found the district court appropriately based its MERA analysis on a presumption of a full build-out under the Plan. Smart Growth therefore met its burden under MERA, and the City failed to rebut the expert report, properly granting Smart Growth’s motion for summary judgment. However, the appellate court reversed the injunction. The court reasoned that the district court’s injunction and order that the City revert to the 2030 plan was made with “limited analysis” and without proper findings of fact on the necessity and scope of injunctive relief. The court remanded the matter back to the district court for further proceedings concerning the injunction.