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Title 21 again: Assembly group mulls revised land use code

Rosemary Shinohara

A big section of city law that will shape the future look and feel of Anchorage, and guide how builders develop subdivisions and businesses, is back before the Anchorage Assembly after a decade of controversy and rewrites.

Title 21, the land use and zoning code, sets rules for such things as screening trash bins, where sidewalks should go, how close buildings can be to streams, landscaping, open space, parking lots and the appearance of commercial and residential buildings.

There have been many versions. Since the Title 21 rewrite began in 2002, residents have argued over its emphasis: improving the appearance of Anchorage and making the city more walking-friendly on the one hand; holding down the cost of development and limiting what some see as unnecessary regulation on the other.

The city Planning and Zoning Commission, with a majority of Mayor Dan Sullivan's appointees, substantially rewrote provisions and approved the latest version earlier this month.

An Assembly committee began reviewing the commission's recommendations Thursday, and members will regularly meet on Thursdays until they've covered every chapter of the 600-page proposal, said committee chairwoman Debbie Ossiander. She said she hopes the full Assembly will act on it this fall but she said the decision could slip into next spring.

While builders and others have long complained that earlier Title 21 proposals went too far, some neighborhood advocates see the Planning and Zoning Commission rewrite as a step backward.

For example, John Weddleton of the Anchorage Citizen's Coalition notes that the planning commission recommends sidewalks be built on just one side of roads, even if the roads are big.

That's fewer sidewalks than are required now.

Existing rules call for sidewalks on either side if a street is more than a side street, said a city Planning Division official.

The coalition is a community group concerned with making Anchorage more livable.

Here's Assemblywoman Harriet Drummond's view of the planning commission version: "I would describe it as essentially gutting it as far as what's good for the community."

Drummond and Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson are urging the Assembly to use a different version as the starting point for amendments.

Jim Fergusson, a Planning and Zoning Commission member, said his goal was to simplify Title 21. He also wanted to balance the cost of development with the value of improvements required in the code, he said.

Fergusson, who has a construction management company, said he was speaking for himself, not for the commission.

"If you make it more expensive for anybody to build -- a developer, you, a church, the government -- somebody has to pay the cost," he said.

Regarding sidewalks, while the commission recommends only one walkway along streets, it included a requirement that there be walkways across parking lots, Fergusson said -- which is not required for most buildings now.

"It's a trade-off."

Connie Yoshimura, who chairs the planning commission, would not comment for this story.

WHY THE REWRITE BEGAN

The city began its major rewrite of city zoning laws in 2002, after adopting a comprehensive plan -- new guidelines for development of the city -- the year before. The code changes were to follow the new plan.

The first version of the code quickly ran into opposition from developers who said it would drive up building costs and cut the value of land.

City planners reworked it. The Planning and Zoning Commission weighed in. An Assembly committee bore down on details. Then the Assembly began approving it a chapter at a time, "provisionally adopting" them pending completion of the entire code. Most of the code was through the Assembly by late 2010.

The provisionally adopted version is the one Assembly members Drummond and Gray-Jackson want the Assembly to work with.

But in 2010, Mayor Sullivan hired his own consultant -- former Assemblyman Dan Coffey -- to review the code and help Sullivan put his own stamp on it. Last year, Sullivan proposed some changes and the whole issue was sent back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for another go-around.

HOW LIFE WOULD CHANGE

Changes to Title 21 will make a difference to everyone who lives in Anchorage, from how easy it is to get to the front of a business, to whether an apartment house has common space where children can play.

Some of the more controversial items, besides sidewalks:

• Trash bins. The version the Assembly provisionally adopted said trash bins for multi-family housing had to be screened or removed from being right next to the street, said city planner Tom Davis, who is in charge of the Title 21 rewrite. The previous version gave building owners several years to comply. The planning commission version keeps the existing rules but says existing bins can remain in place indefinitely. "They could be around for decades," Davis said.

• Streams. Right now buildings must be set back 25 feet on either side of a stream. An earlier version would have increased that to 50 feet "based on a lot of evidence that 50 feet is a bare minimum if a stream is to remain healthy," Davis said.

But concerns about how the change would affect some 3,000 lots that touch on streams caused the Sullivan administration to recommend staying with 25-foot setbacks for now and that's what the planning commission version does, Davis said.

• Mixed-use districts. An earlier version created districts that would make it easy for pedestrians to walk from one business or residence to another, with businesses tucked in compactly and storefronts near the street. Parking might be beside or behind the building.

The city's comprehensive plan calls for three sizes of mixed-use districts, ranging from as small as the business development on the corner of Jewel Lake Road and Dimond Boulevard to the whole of Midtown, Davis said.

The planning commission version eliminates mixed-use districts.

The new proposal from the commission allows for individual mixed-use buildings, as did the earlier version. Those buildings would be held to pedestrian-friendly designs but might be next to buildings that aren't.

• Sunlight. The provisionally adopted code would have sheltered residential areas from falling under the shadow of adjacent commercial buildings. For example, the city could force developers to limit the height of buildings on the side closest to the neighborhood, to keep from conflicting with residential areas.

The planning commission deleted those requirements.

• Private open space. The planning department is still reviewing this provision but the department believes the commission version called for less open space overall to be required for apartment buildings, Davis said.

• Site condos. The planning commission would impose more reviews on site condo developments, which are often plain, boxy duplexes and single-family condos packed in tight. In 2004, the city passed regulations to ensure adequate infrastructure, Fire Department access and the like for site condos.

The planning commission version of Title 21 calls for a city review of the site plans and, for developments with 16 or more units, a public hearing and planning commission approval, Davis said.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at rshinohara@adn.com or 257-4340.

Title 21 timeline

2001 — City adopts Anchorage 2020 comprehensive plan.

2002 — Denver consultants begin review of city zoning and land use plan.

2005, 2006 — Two drafts produced.

2007-2010 — Planning and Zoning Commission and Platting Board hold 16 public hearings.

2007-2010 — Assembly provisionally adopts new code chapter by chapter.

2010 — Mayor Sullivan hires his own consultant, Dan Coffey.

2011 — Sullivan proposes changes.

July 9, 2012 — Planning and Zoning Commission produces new version.

July 19, 2012 — Assembly committee begins review of commission changes.

Unknown date — Assembly passes revised code.

Assembly Title 21 Committee meets 9:30-11:30 a.m. on Thursdays to review proposed changes to Title 21. The meetings, open to the public, are in a conference room at the Planning and Development Center, 4700 Elmore Road.

City's Title 21 rewrite page
By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
Anchorage Daily News