Title 21 debate continues Tuesday night, with criticism so far from all corners

Rosemary Shinohara

When proposed changes to Anchorage's zoning code hit the Assembly for a public hearing last week, a common theme from people representing both sides of the issue was this: They've got major problems with the way the rewrite turned out.

Whether people want more rules over how the city is built, or fewer, most said they didn't like the current proposals to rewrite the Title 21 code.

Forty people testified in rapid succession at the first hearing on the code, some 700 pages of complex rules over development in the city.

More signed up to speak, and the hearing continues at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the Assembly chambers at the Loussac Library. This week, the meeting is only about Title 21. Anyone who signs up during the first hour of the meeting, or who signed up last week but wasn't heard, will get a turn at the podium, said Assembly chairman Ernie Hall.

Oral testimony will be closed after everyone who signs up speaks, he said. But people can still send written comments until Feb. 12.

Just about everyone speaking at the first hearing was critical of proposed new code.

Several people -- builders and building owners and managers -- said there are too many new restrictions in the latest version of the code, and the city will be infringing on private property rights.

Others, residents and community activists, said the rewrite being considered by the Assembly doesn't raise development standards enough. Most of the people in this camp want the city to go back to a Title 21 version that was approved by the Assembly, chapter by chapter, between 2007 and 2010, mostly during the administration of former Mayor Mark Begich. The chapters were "provisionally" adopted, awaiting a later vote on the whole of Title 21.

The final vote on the provisional version never happened.

Instead, Mayor Dan Sullivan and his consultant, attorney and former assemblyman Dan Coffey, reviewed the document and Sullivan recommended amendments. Then the Planning and Zoning Commission, whose members were mostly appointed by Sullivan, decided to re-open the entire zoning code to reconsideration rather than just look at the Sullivan amendments. After that, an Assembly committee headed by Debbie Ossiander decided which version to accept, and send to the Assembly.

Now, after 10 years of study, some people are upset with public hearings they think are happening too fast.

Some were counting on having until the next regular Assembly meeting, on Jan. 29, to comment on it, said Cheryl Richardson, director of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, which works on neighborhood issues.

But Hall, the Assembly chairman, decided to add a meeting Tuesday to continue the hearing instead.

People are having to comment without having finished plowing through the complex document, Richardson said.

"That's the biggest problem," she said.

And it's so complicated that only a limited number of people understand the details, she said.

Hall said he never said the hearing would continue Jan. 29, and in fact that day's Assembly agenda is packed with other items.

"I've delayed this and delayed this," Hall said.

He's asked Assembly members to propose any amendments by Feb. 12. A work session on those amendments is scheduled Feb. 22. And Title 21 comes before the Assembly for action Feb. 26.

Some of the issues raised so far:

• Property rights taken: Architect Don Dwiggins told the Assembly the city would be "stripping people of their property rights" with, for example, requirements for a snow storage plan on new commercial development, and new limits on the kind of development allowed in land zoned for industrial uses.

The Building Owners & Managers Association, a strong voice for commercial property owners and managers during the Title 21 debate, says in written comments that "down-zoning I-1 (light industrial) land so that only limited commercial uses are allowable represents a 'taking' that will lead to much lower property values...."

• Shortage of residential and industrial land: Oppositely, Nancy Pease, a former city planning and zoning commissioner who spoke on behalf of the Rabbit Creek Community Council, said the city should consider shortages of land for housing and industry when it approves a development. "Do not allow developers to put in single family where multi-family is intended."

• Stream setbacks: Under existing law, buildings have to be at least 25 feet from streams. The national standards for flood and pollution control call for setbacks of more than 50 feet. The latest version of Title 21 keeps it at 25-feet. The city should go back to the version that calls for 50-feet, Pease said.

• The process: The Rabbit Creek Community Council objects to the current version partly because of "the affront to the public process by having 'the peoples' plan' in which we invested so much time (the provisionally adopted one) rewritten by a consultant and lobbyists from the building section and the developer-stacked P&Z (Planning and Zoning Commission)."

• Mixed use: The Building Owners group says the definition of mixed use buildings -- meant to combine residential and commercial uses, and to encourage pedestrian amenities -- is too loose, and mixed use requirements could be applied to buildings that simply have both retail space and offices. They don't want that.

Paula Williams, a resident who testified, said on the other hand she'd like to see mixed uses throughout Anchorage.

• Density: The Building Owners group says a number of new restrictions will, in fact, limit the density of development when the goal of Anchorage's comprehensive plan is to increase density to make the best use of a dwindling supply of land.

For example, a proposed height restriction for buildings in the general business district would limit density.

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

Read the current Title 21 proposal