Compass: Assembly shouldn't shortchange citizens on Title 21

The Assembly sees nothing wrong with the last two years' rewrite of Title 21, Anchorage's land use and zoning laws. But those who followed the process through the preceding eight years strongly object to the disrespect the Assembly is showing for meaningful public process and open government.

Title 21 was hijacked by a group of developers who reject too many of the community values in the city's 2001 comprehensive plan. Particularly, they don't like the community deciding that government should require:

Safer walking and biking,

Commercial construction that protects neighborhoods from shadowing,

Concentrating new commercial development in existing employment centers and new neighborhood shopping districts.

These developers feel that their personal profits trump the quality of life of the families who live here generation after generation. They put their own right to develop a single property however they want above community values for a healthier, safer northern community.

For the first eight years that Title 21 underwent public review, many concessions were made to developers. They succeeded in whittling down open space requirements, the variety of houses along one street, northern design standards, fish and wildlife habitat protection and more. Even with these compromises, by the end of 2010, over 90 percent of the code was ready for final adoption.

But in 2010, under our newly elected mayor, the whole process was begun all over again and developers got another bite at the apple. Since then it's been one big giveaway as the mayor's contractor, Dan Coffey, took the whole code behind closed doors for more than a year and the newly appointed Planning and Zoning Commission declared themselves the "experts," scorning previous decisions, and worked to strip basic neighborhood protections.

Finally, the Assembly's Title 21 Committee rushed the whole 800-plus pages of code through one last review, making major changes that will put the financial burden on Anchorage's citizens while developers bank additional profits.

Just a few examples illustrate how developers win and neighborhoods and taxpayers lose:

Last year, the chair of the Assembly's Title 21 Committee turned to a developer and said, "You develop residential properties. Tell us how many trees are needed." The developer responded that only one tree was needed per residential lot. And that's how residential landscaping standards were reduced from three trees to one for new construction.

Because parking requirements are reduced, developers save up to $10,000 per eliminated parking space, while gaining additional height and bulk for commercial buildings that are not restricted from shadowing established neighborhoods.

Developers gained language allowing them to shift transportation and utility infrastructure costs of their development to local government in a private appeal process with an appointed official, a process that invites influence peddling.

The Assembly committee agreed to allow developers to continue commercial, retail and office uses on their industrial lands, thereby increasing government's transportation, utility, construction, operations and maintenance, fire and police costs for all of us to pay. This also delays development of neighborhood shopping districts that badly need new commercial growth.

Over the first eight years, our planning staff consistently represented Anchorage 2020 and public opinion. There were many compromises away from public values but that wasn't enough for the developers. They want "the market" to guide development, not Anchorage 2020 and not our community values.

The Assembly is shortchanging the people they are supposed to represent by rushing this latest review of lengthy, complicated code. Members acknowledge that they are not familiar with what's in the new code and openly defer to the committee chair to do this work for them.

It's only fair for this Assembly to allow citizens until the end of February to review this thick, complicated code and find more of the language that developers have added that makes all of us contribute to their personal profits.

Cheryl Richardson is director of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, which works on neighborhood issues.