Minnesota cities are rolling out “Green Steps” program

These include building more bike lanes, launching public awareness campaigns, and adopting stringent building requirements for private structures that currently only apply to Minnesota government structures

Minnesota GreenStep

Minnesota cities are signing up to adopt the “GreenStep Cities” program—the legislature didn’t pass the program, but it is a joint and voluntary initiative led by private interest groups, the Met Council, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

So far, over 100 Minnesota cities have joined the program, most of these with relatively high populations. Hallock and Dilworth joined in 2019 thus far. And large cities such as Chanhassen, Stillwater, Bloomington and Lakeville joined in 2017-18. 

Yet passage or consideration of the program has caused controversy in many cities, including as to whether the program continues to be “voluntary” once it is adopted. 

And while both proponents and critics of the program have condemned what they label as misinformation that exists about the program—for example, some opponents of GreenStep have labeled it as a repackaged version of the United Nations’ “Agenda 21”—there is also little public information that exists about the program. For example, when visited on July 8, 2019, the “About” page on the GreenStep website was blank.

What is known about the program is that cities that sign on are supposed to take actions, or steps, that put them on the path to “sustainability.”

Some actions make sense, and may marginally save taxpayer dollars. During step one, for example, cities may pursue the replacement of current light bulbs with LEDs.

But steps two and three become more difficult and potentially costlier. These include building more bike lanes, launching public awareness campaigns, and adopting stringent building requirements for private structures that currently only apply to Minnesota government structures (See the example of Albert Lea to view different actions taken).

The chief concern—especially when it comes to steps two and three—is that the program will reduce city expansion and private property rights, by increasing zoning restrictions and city planning requirements. This would increase the cost of living for Minnesota families, and increase the cost of doing business for Minnesota employers. 

In other words, does “GreenStep” open the door to expansion-crushing NIMBYism (“not in my backyard”), with an environmental pretext? California provides a cautionary tale:

California is America’s poorest state, with the largest portion of its population in poverty. California’s middle class is far from thriving as well, and the state is currently experiencing a mass-exodus to unplanned cities like Houston. About 20 percent of Californians are poor, compared to the national average of about 14 percent.

One chief culprit is the cost of housing, fueled by aggressive zoning regulations that constrict new building.

And the primary blame for that lies in a 1970 law—the California Environmental Quality Act—that is now being used to stop developments by NIMBYs (self-interested property or business owners who would like to restrict the supply of new building).

According to The Economist: “Four-fifths of all suits filed under [the Environmental Quality Act] have sought to stop infill development in cities (ie, on land already zoned for building) even though this usually has a smaller environmental impact than building on green fields. California’s development and impact fees are about three times higher than the national average. Zoning laws and parking requirements are onerous, too.”

If proponents of GreenStep want Minnesota citizens to be less “conspiratorial” they should release more info about the program. In percentage terms, who funds it? What happens if cities sign on and don’t do anything? Are cities forced to remain in the program? If you are a city official or concerned citizen with information about MN GreenStep and your city, including about the nature of the program after your city has joined, please contact jvyyvf@nycunarjfza.pbz.


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Willis Krumholz
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Willis L. Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry. The views expressed are those of the author only. You can follow Willis on Twitter @WillKrumholz.