Local Action Deadlines Pose Problem for Local Government During Emergency

March 30, 2020

Several sections of Minnesota law require cities to review and act on certain matters in a limited time frame during normal operations, but make no allowances for emergency situations.

Cities are working hard to make sure that business continues in as close to a normal state as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, but even with good emergency planning, some situations will prevent normal speed of response to public requests from local governments.

Land use requests

Minnesota Statutes, section 15.99 requires that certain written applications must be reviewed for completeness and notified of specific additional information needed within 15 days, or the city must consider the application complete, even if key data is missing. Then, the request must be acted upon within 60 days, or it is deemed approved unless the applicant is provided notice in writing that an additional 60 days will be needed.

Under normal city operating conditions, acting on these requests within those timelines can occasionally be challenging, but is typically feasible. Under the current state of emergency, however, reviews of requests for permits, variances, and zoning changes may rely on staff and resources that have become unavailable. City offices are closed, and many city staff members are, or could quickly become, unavailable.

The League, along with the Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC), was asked to provide possible statutory language to allow flexibility for local governments during the state of emergency. The fix would stop the clock from running on those requirements during a governor-declared state of emergency in any community included in the area affected by the declaration.

The clocks would be reset when the emergency ended and start counting down again at that point. The League, AMC, the Minnesota Association of Townships (MAT), the Minnesota County Planning and Zoning Administrators, and the Minnesota Chapter of the American Planners Association all supported that language.

Associations representing builders and developers are opposing relief on these deadlines, claiming that their members would be reasonable in their expectations. Nothing, however, requires that of any specific proposer, and the mandate covers all applications for action made to a city, not just ones made by their members.

Platting and zoning

Under Minnesota Statutes, section 462.358, preliminary and final plat applications are deemed approved if municipalities (cities and townships) are unable to act in 120 days for preliminary plat approvals and 60 days for final plat approvals. While automatic approval (if the municipality doesn’t act) only occurs if the applicant complies with all applicable conditions and requirements, some of these conditions and requirements are identified at the preliminary plat approval.

Cities should be able to ensure that these conditions and requirements have been met. As mentioned above, cities are working hard to meet the needs of their residents during this emergency and will continue to address subdivision approvals as quickly as they can.

The League and MAT have requested changes to the law. Suggested language allows cities flexibility, if needed. The need for flexibility will be particularly heightened with smaller cities and townships where there is limited staff capable of completing the work.

Small cell wireless

Finally, the League has suggested a change to Minnesota Statutes, section 237.163 that would suspend the 90-day requirement for city review and action on small cell wireless facility permit applications. The current statute includes a “deemed granted” provision if the timeline is not met.

In the League’s proposal, the time limit would be suspended during a gubernatorial emergency declaration and would reset and restart after the emergency declaration has been lifted. This change would allow local governments enough time to review applications in a timely manner after the emergency declaration has been lifted.

In response to this proposal, three of the major wireless providers, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T, have all provided letters stating they do not intend to use the “deemed approved” allowance if a deadline is missed, but still oppose that same assurance be provided to cities in law.

Next steps

The League will continue to work with the governor’s office and the Legislature, as well as to negotiate with other interested parties, to establish reasonable solutions for cities during emergency situations related to all of these issues.