Coffey: Anchorage zoning code revamp flawed

November 26, 2010 

The city of Anchorage in 2002 began a project to completely redo a big section of city law: the zoning and land use code.

The rewrite -- still under way -- is supposed to answer questions like: How many look-alike houses should a builder put in the same subdivision? How much landscaping should a commercial building have? And even, how and where should a Dumpster be hidden?

Under Mayor George Wuerch, the city hired Denver consultants Clarion Associates to rewrite zoning and land use law. Mayor Mark Begich continued the project. The administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan is trying to wrap it up.

Planners, builders and neighborhood advocates and others have been arguing about it since the beginning.

Sullivan hired former Assemblyman Dan Coffey in July to review and make recommendations on the entire proposal, about 640 pages long. His deadline for reviewing the whole thing: the end of December.

Coffey headed up an Assembly committee on the land use code rewrite -- Title 21, as it's known -- until he left office this spring. He was a land use lawyer for more than 30 years, he said. As a commercial real estate developer himself, he has practical experience.

The zoning code has been stalled partly because it's controversial. Developers say parts of it will drive up costs. Architects worry that design creativity will be smothered by too many rules.

Here's a recent Daily News interview with Coffey on the project. The questions and answers were edited for length.

Q. What was so hard about this deal?

A. The process started out flawed and we bought into a process that was created by our consultants. ... They brought us a code. Rather than saying, "No, we're not going to do all those things," we started going through it line by line.

In the words of my good friend Tim Potter, we should have thrown it out the window the day we got it and picked five or six major things we wanted to address and got it done in two years.

Q. What do you think are the main reasons to change the code? Why should we be messing with it? A. In many respects it is a hodgepodge of code that's been added onto, subtracted from for 20-plus years.

The other thing was it was some of the city stuff and some of the borough stuff. ... And a lot of things that are in modern land use codes are not in existing code -- all the design standards. ...

The true driver was the comprehensive plan, with the new standards in the comprehensive plan, adopted in 2002. That was what started it.

Q. So what's your role?

A. There are those of us who think it (the new code) went too far, including the mayor and including me, because I don't think enough attention was paid to the costs we're imposing on our citizens by doing this.

I also think we are somewhat schizophrenic between what this code will do and what the comprehensive plan says the code should do, density being the best example.

Q. Could you explain that?

A. We impose a lot of demands on the land -- parking, landscaping, hide the garbage, hide the utilities, have 5-10 percent for snow storage, interior walkways from one place to another. All of this takes land.

Then we have a lot of things (rules) on buildings that diminish the size of the building. ... And what you find is a reduction in what you can accommodate on any one land parcel and any one building.

Q. That's the opposite of the density the comp plan called for.

A. Well, sure. If you take density to its extreme, you have Stalingrad. And I'm not advocating that. But ... because of these aesthetic amenities that are being insisted upon, we've gone the other way.

Q. How do you think we can fix what (you believe) is wrong now?

A. There's some people who want to dump the whole thing. Me, I'm a moderate. I do this: I say, what's it cost, what's the benefit?

Landscaping is nice. Big, vacant parking lots with nothing in them are not nearly as attractive as parking lots that have landscaping around them and in them.

What's it cost? I got an e-mail from a builder today (about curbing around landscaping). They (the planners) want the curb to stick up 6 inches all the way around the landscape bed because that protects the landscaping from the automobile. If you've got an 8-foot-wide bed that's 20 feet long, you've got 56 feet. You've got a thousand-dollar bill. Do that 10 times in a parking lot and you've got a $10,000 bill.

Is that cost something we want to impose, or could we take the risk of having no curb around an 8-foot landscaped bed?

If you're an incrementalist and a moderate like me, you say, why don't we step back? ...

There are so many elements here about which planners say, "I don't like that." You find garages in the front, they don't like them. They put a pejorative on them. They call them snout houses. And they say, well, if you're gonna do that you can't have it stick out any more than so many square feet. ...

Alaskans like their garages because they've got their toys. And they want big garages they can put their toys in. Witness the proliferation of storage facilities around here, so their snowmachines can go inside in the summer and their boats come out, and vice versa.

Q. You feel we ought to go through the whole proposal.

A. I am. Right now I'm asking folks for input. BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association), home builders, Cook Inlet Housing, Anchorage Citizens Coalition. ... Alaska Railroad. The airport.

Q. What's the process here?

A. This whole thing has been provisionally adopted except Chapter 10 (Chugiak-Eagle River section).

The mayor wants to weigh in. He picked me to do that.

Q. Do you think there's enough information about costs?

A. No. We're way short. We did an economic impact analysis in 2007, something like that. That covers about 30 percent of the true costs of what we're doing. It deals with the mandated uses and things that you have to do with regard to the land and the building -- landscaping, parking, snow storage, interior walkways, interior landscaping, Dumpster screening.

It doesn't take into consideration what is the design and permitting costs both for the builder and for the city. ... The designers and the architects and engineers will spend a lot of time having to address things we haven't ever had to address before. And the staff will spend a lot of time.

We don't have the staff to handle it.

I'm going to recommend to the mayor that we redo it (the cost analysis) to cover all the factors. We have to. We damn well better know what this is going to cost us.

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