Reviewer hints at changes in city's zoning, land use code

Rosemary Shinohara

Former Assemblyman Dan Coffey, hired by the mayor as a consultant on the rewrite of Anchorage's zoning and land use code, said Monday he is working on scaling back some development requirements and simplifying others.

A rewrite of the land use code, or Title 21, has been in progress since 2002. The Anchorage Assembly has provisionally adopted most of the revised code. But after Mayor Dan Sullivan came into office, he wanted to review the code -- some 600 pages -- and asked Coffey to make recommendations.

The documents containing Coffey's ideas are still under wraps but Coffey gave a glimpse of his proposed changes in a speech at an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce lunch on Monday.

Some recommendations would make the code less expensive for developers to comply with, he said.

For example, he recommends reducing slightly the number of design elements builders must incorporate in new housing: "If you had to pick five (choices from a menu of design elements), I said four is enough."

Or where the proposed code says new subdivisions must contain a certain number of different models of houses, he proposes reducing that number.

"I believe we didn't pay enough attention to economics and we paid a whole lot of attention to the aesthetics," Coffey said. "I thought we were out of balance."

The fact that Coffey wrote the review by himself over the past several months is controversial for some advocacy groups.

"The biggest problem is that his work has been done in secret, behind closed doors for over a year now," Cheryl Richardson, director of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, wrote in a Daily News opinion piece published July 23. The coalition works on neighborhood issues.

She said any revisions Sullivan wants to the version of Title 21 provisionally adopted by the Assembly should be presented as amendments, one by one.

The Sullivan administration's version -- still being worked on -- will become public within weeks, the mayor indicated two weeks ago. The code rewrite with his proposals in it will go back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for a public hearing and recommendations, then on to the Assembly for another hearing and a decision.

Sullivan said recently that his goal is to have the rewrite finally approved by the Assembly by the end of this year. Assembly chairwoman Debbie Ossiander said Monday she thinks it will take until next spring, due partly to the press of other business.

Among other changes Coffey said he is proposing:

• City department heads like the planning director or police chief should not be able to initiate the rezoning of someone's property. Rezones cost the property owner time, energy and money, Coffey said.

He thinks just the mayor, the property owner and the Assembly should be allowed to start the process.

• Zoning districts should be pared back, eliminating some proposed new ones that would be specially designated for Midtown, for example, or for mixed-use districts -- districts that allow a combination of housing and businesses in the same building.

The city should just allow mixed-use development under some of the current business zoning districts, he said. There would still be separate standards for mixed use.

• Regarding widths of driveways, height limits in residential zones, what percentage of a lot a building should be allowed to cover -- the dimensions of building -- Coffey thinks the rules in force today should continue.

• Commercial design standards as proposed in the version adopted by the Assembly should stay as is; they were hammered out with the involvement of architects and developers, he said.

• Coffey said he asked landscape architects to rewrite the rules for landscaping and they made them clearer than the rules included in the provisionally adopted version. In most cases the landscaping requirements will be as stringent as or more stringent than had been proposed, he said.

In an interview later Monday, he explained: Instead of requiring that developers earn a specific number of landscaping points based on things like the size of trees, the rules would be simpler. Thirty-foot-wide landscaping around the perimeter of a property, for example, would be required to include a certain number of trees and bushes.

John Weddleton, a former president of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition who was in the Chamber of Commerce audience, said he thinks Coffey is "grounded in the Anchorage of the '50s or '60s."

But the city's comprehensive plan, on which the zoning code is based, looks ahead 10 or 20 years to a time when the city will be more crowded, Weddleton said.

As for specifics, Coffey gave a general overview of his proposals. "Title 21 is about the details," said Weddleton.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.