Suburbs nixing aging rules and regulations

·5 min read

The mere sight of your trash bins is no longer a citation-worthy offense in Burnsville.

In Falcon Heights, you are free to grow vegetables in your front yard.

Homeowners can build taller front-yard fences, and some can build bigger storage buildings in Inver Grove Heights.

And Shoreview, like many suburbs, has rolled back cat and dog licensing after compliance was found to be abysmal.

A growing list of Twin Cities suburbs are reevaluating and nixing unnecessary regulations, after coming to the realization that they can eat up staff time and don't always serve the greater community good. Some point to a generational shift. While older generations, including the baby boomers, established and embraced a narrow code of suburban conduct, younger homeowners buying into these communities are starting to ask: What's the point?

"We do want to be more welcoming of how residents want to live in our city as long as it isn't hurting someone else," said Burnsville City Council Member Cara Schulz, a leading voice in her city's effort to eliminate unnecessary regulations.

The Burnsville City Council in recent years has simplified or eliminated half a dozen rules affecting property owners, addressing topics ranging from building heights in redevelopment areas to solar panel design to trash cans. Residents can now keep them beside their house without screening. The city has also gone one step further, establishing a citizen's task force to review city code, delete the outdated parts and create an updated, user-friendly approach to city rules.

Nearly 50 residents applied to be on the 15-person commission. Schulz described it as an overwhelming response.

Task force member Sarah Sadique, a five-year Burnsville resident, said she's excited to modernize the city's rules.

"We can redefine what those priorities are and where we draw the line in a way that's more beneficial for all of the kinds of people that live in Burnsville," she said.

Luke Fischer, deputy director of the League of Minnesota Cities, said city governments are constantly reviewing policies and practices to align with public expectation.

"One of the greatest things about cities is they are closest to the people," he said. "When something isn't working for the people, they are able to adjust and adapt accordingly."

Inver Grove Heights recently made several changes allowing residents to do more with their yards with fewer restrictions. The city also has a list of other ordinances to rethink and potentially change, said Heather Rand, the city's community development director.

The city will allow larger sheds and garages on midsize lots and 4-foot fences in front yards. It will likely soon also permit goats to remove buckthorn, and for residents to have "market gardens" — gardens in yards where they can grow food and sell it, too.

Brenda Dietrich, an Inver Grove Heights City Council member, said the changes reflect residents' requests and are a response to the marketplace.

"We're just trying to be more practical," she said. "I don't want to over-legislate and tell folks what they can and can't do in their yard."

In Falcon Heights, residents can now plant front yard vegetable gardens. A 1950s ordinance required turf grass — a rule that a neighborhood dust-up over a front yard garden brought to the forefront last year.

After gathering community input — and drawing more ire from residents by taking six months to study the issue — the City Council agreed in December to allow front yard vegetable gardens and "edible landscaping" with restrictions on retail sales of produce on residential properties. Mayor Randy Gustafson declared that "people can garden freely."

"Homeowners can plant the vegetation on their properties that works for them," he said.

In an interview, Gustafson said city leaders are always trying to balance needs.

"The object, in my opinion, is how do you help the community get along with each other," he said. "How do you establish community standards to live in harmony?"

Finding that balance can be a challenge for city officials, especially as younger families begin buying homes and question some of the rules established by older generations of suburbanites.

"Councils are quite frequently facing this clash of the established and newer generations," said Roseville Community Development Director Janice Gundlach.

Many baby boomers still prescribe to a very traditional suburban ideal, Gundlach said.

"Many residents don't want to see garbage cans by the road," she said.

Roseville has tried to streamline some processes. For example, establishing an accessory dwelling unit, often called a granny flat, used to require a conditional-use permit — a process that involved filing an application, notifying neighbors, holding a public hearing and obtaining planning commission and City Council approval.

City leaders realized it was easier to spell out all the rules for granny flats in city code. Now, if residents meet those requirements, no conditional use permit is required.

In Mounds View, leaders recently debated establishing a whole matrix of rules around a new splash pad. They considered staffing it with paid attendants and controlling access, but ultimately decided that families should just be able to walk up and use it for free.

"We wanted to remove as many restrictions to use, so it's just like a playground," said City Administrator Nyle Zikmund.

Momentum toward simplification continues, he said. City officials are considering eliminating food truck licensing, for example, because it's redundant with county licensing.

And when the city decided to allow beekeeping in residential areas, they opted for a lifetime permit instead of annual renewals.

"We are looking at little things and asking, is this just bureaucracy that is a little overboard?" Zikmund said. "What is the real value of that?"

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037

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