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Using an environmental review tool to yield planning and economic development benefits

September 24, 2018

By Beth Elliott and John Shardlow

In Minnesota, the Alternative Urban Areawide Review helps map a realistic path to realizing community goals—other states should use it too

Our team of planners lay the foundation to create communities. It starts with a vision to improve our communities, balanced with a promise to treat our land responsibly. At the most basic level, planning is about protecting both public and private investment over time.

For government clients, that is about how different land uses should be arranged on the land to manage constraints and maximize natural and man-made assets. Planning is essential for private sector clients for similar reasons but also to overcome uncertainty and manage risks associated with investments. From an aspirational standpoint, planners engage communities in charting out a path to a common future vision that balances local interests and achieves places where people want to live, work, and play.

An efficient planning tool

In Minnesota, our team uses the Alternative Urban Areawide Review (AUAR) tool to yield planning and economic development benefits. The AUAR is a hybrid of the Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) review processes. AUARs are the preferred environmental review approach when the future development of an area may occur over a long period of time and is subject to changes, due to market conditions and other factors. It allows for the identification and assessment of different development scenarios, as opposed to a specific project. The process is designed to look at the cumulative and related impacts of anticipated development scenarios within a given geographic area over time.

Alternative Urban Areawide Reviews (AUAR) are great planning tools because everybody knows what to expect and who is responsible and how. The above AUAR is for the Minnesota Vikings Training Facility in Eagan, Minnesota.

The AUAR is also unique in that it requires the preparation and adoption of a mitigation plan. Once adopted, the mitigation plan carries the same weight as a local ordinance and represents a binding commitment to require the implementation of mitigation measure when certain development activities occur. This essentially matches required mitigation to described development scenarios. If development occurs according to a certain scenario, then prescribed mitigation measures shall be completed.

AUARs are great planning tools because everybody knows what to expect and who is responsible and how. The government can plan for its capital improvements and the developers can prepare their proformas with confidence. The responsibility for specific mitigative measures can and often are negotiated, too.

Economic development benefits

AUARs are great economic development tools. Once an AUAR has been prepared and adopted, any development that is less than or equal to the intensity of a scenario contained in the AUAR simply follows the mitigation plan and no additional environmental review is needed. This can cut a year or more out of the schedule, which has huge benefits.

One of the first AUARs Stantec prepared in Minnesota was for a project called Arbor Lakes, in Maple Grove, Minnesota, more than 20 years ago.

AUARs have proven the test of time in Minnesota. We prepared one of the first AUARs for a project called Arbor Lakes, in Maple Grove, Minnesota, more than 20 years ago. This tool has been updated every five years, as required, but has successfully guided the development of nearly 1,000 acres of highly successful mixed-use development during the past two decades.

Why a tool like AUAR could benefit other states

The AUAR is part of the Minnesota EQB Environmental Review Rules, as an alternative form of EIS, so it is a creature of state law. AUAR is particularly attractive to both developers and local governments because it can expedite the review process, eliminate uncertainty, and retain flexibility, without losing ultimate regulatory teeth.

We would recommend this approach to environmental review for use across the country. Everyone is rightfully concerned about the cost of regulations and the time and effort needed to manage the entitlement and regulation of development over time. When guided by the best available information, some creativity and a collaborative working relationship, this approach to environmental review can both reduce costs and improve efficiency and effectiveness.

AUAR is particularly attractive to both developers and local governments because it can expedite the review process and provide flexibility without losing ultimate regulatory teeth.

Everyone benefits when issues are anticipated, and solutions are planned. The public benefits when its investments are carefully managed and protected. The private sector benefits when it can rely on and catalyze public investment to create value and build great communities.

An AUAR is much more detailed than an average planning process, but it is still a plan. Cities can take stock of undeveloped land, evaluate alternative land use scenarios, study the impacts of those alternatives, and make educated decisions about how to grow their communities. With the added benefit of well-thought-out mitigation strategies, cities can determine what level of development they can realistically handle at what stages of a projected growth cycle. An AUAR results in a truly informed plan that charts a realistic path to realizing community goals.

  • Beth Elliott

    As the downtown planner for the City of Minneapolis, Beth has spent 15 years working on capital and facilities planning, in-fill development, historic preservation, and public participation methods.

    Contact Beth
  • John Shardlow
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