It's time to move ahead with the new land code

Chris Stephens

If you haven't heard about the proposed changes to Title 21 of Anchorage's municipal code, you soon will. Title 21 is a section of the city code that regulates land use and development.

The title has been rewritten and will go before the Planning and Zoning Commission for public comment at 6:30 Monday night in the Assembly Chambers in Loussac Library. From there the rewrite goes to the Anchorage Assembly for more public comment and eventual passage sometime next year.

The process of rewriting the code has been long and contentious, dating back through four mayors.

Title 21 is an extremely important because it defines how land in Anchorage can be used and developed. The municipal website says the purpose of the rewrite is "to modernize Anchorage's land use regulations to include development techniques and design standards; to make the code more usable and easier to understand; and to implement recently adopted plans and policies."

But it's more than that.

The rewrite will determine how the city grows well into the future by defining and encouraging different types of land use and development design throughout the municipality. That's why it draws such strong opinion and reactions from all sides.

Some people think Anchorage needs a code that embraces the most modern city planning philosophies. Some think we should follow the lead of other U.S. cities; Portland is often mentioned.

Some in the real estate development profession, as represented by the Building Owners and Managers Association, strongly dislike the revisions. They think the rewrite is overly complex, makes too many changes, institutes too many new provisions, is impractical, unworkable and will hinder future growth. They also feel the rewrite calls for government to make decisions that have been, and should continue to be, left to the free market. They want to throw out the rewrite and start the process all over.

Others think the current code is fine and doesn't need changes.

The bulk of the rewrite was done under former Mayor Mark Begich, (now Alaska's junior U.S. senator). When our current mayor, Dan Sullivan, was elected, he had the Title 21 rewrite reviewed by a consultant. The consultant's report, with recommended changes to the rewrite, is more than 42 pages. The mayor's staff reviewed the recommendations and condensed them into 37 items. The mayor rejected 21 of them and recommends the adoption of 16, in whole or in part, and some of those with modifications.

The mayor's recommendations are needed. Two items are especially important to commercial real estate. One deals with new midtown mixed-use zones; the other allows the continued use of land zoned for light industrial development to be used for commercial purposes, because commercial land is in short supply here.

The municipal website provides comprehensive information on the proposed rewrite, including the consultant's recommendations, the mayor's recommended changes, the staff report, tracked changes and much more.

The rewrite has to strike a difficult balance. It must set the framework for Anchorage's future growth, reflecting a vibrant young city striving for modern future development and opportunity. At the same time, it needs to be workable, recognize historical trends, community values and way of life. We are in a unique location where development techniques that work elsewhere may not work.

The rewrite is massive, more than 600 pages. Hardly anyone, except for a few professionals in the field, completely understands the effect. Clearly, some are displeased with it. While we could study and do more analysis of the rewrite, we have reached the point where enough is enough. It has taken so long to get to this point that everyone involved feels we have done our best and are ready to move on. Also, the fact that the rewrite exists but has not been passed creates uncertainty that makes development now more difficult.

At the same time, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Assembly need to carefully consider all the consultant's recommendations and those of the building owners and managers. Their concerns are based on expert knowledge of real estate development and years of experience here. They want a code that gets it right the first time.

One of the smart provisions in the mayor's recommendations is a two-year period in which the director of Community Development can request changes directly to the Assembly, without going through the long formal process with the Planning and Zoning Commission. We certainly will learn of internal conflicts and other problems when the new rules take effect. Beyond that, if portions are found to be unworkable or counter to the community's desires, we can change them.

Because the rewrite is technical, understanding the implications of individual items is beyond most of us. But if you own undeveloped land or a commercial or multi-tenant building, you should take time to see how the rewrite and the mayor's recommendations will affect your property. Now is the time to speak up.

Chris Stephens, CCIM, is a local associate broker specializing in commercial and investment real estate. His column appears monthly in the Sunday Daily News.