Compass: Title 21 isn't perfect, but it's good

Land use decisions are important. They should reflect what all citizens want for the future. That would be easy if we all wanted the same things, but we don't. Title 21, Anchorage's land use code, is full of thousands of such decisions. It is an 800-page book of laws written to be practical, realistic and specific enough to enforce.

In 2004, I ran for the Assembly because of the Title 21 rewrite. I have served as chair/member of the Assembly's Title 21 Committee every year since. We have now reviewed five different drafts of Title 21 trying to work through tough issues. I am the only elected official left who has gone through every step of that process.

The committee decided early on the only realistic way to deal with the rewrite was to break it into pieces. As we finished reviewing each chapter of Title 21, we presented that piece to the full Assembly for provisional adoption; with the clear understanding it would need future revisions before final adoption.

In 2010 Mayor Sullivan rightfully wanted to weigh in on the city's land use decisions, so he hired Dan Coffey as a consultant. Mayor Sullivan made his new recommendations to the planning staff regarding Title 21 in 2011. As documented, Mayor Sullivan accepted fewer than half of the consultant's recommendations. ("Mayor's Decisions on the Consultant's Report," October 19, 2011, published at

t21/Documents/T21_Mayor%27sDecisions-FinalDocument-10-19-2011.pdf. After review, proposed changes went to the Planning and Zoning Commission, which suggested additional changes. The Commission finished its review in late June 2012.

In July 2012, the full Assembly received the new recommendations and referred them back to its Title 21 Committee. The committee went through each recommendation to discuss pros and cons. Some we liked, some we didn't, and for some we asked staff to draft compromise language. We created a document using the provisionally adopted Title 21 chapters as base with an overlay of various color amendments indicating their source: Mayor's administration, Assembly Committee, or Planning and Zoning Commission. This version has been posted on the municipal website at since December 2012.

No doubt many people may have disengaged from the process after the Planning and Zoning Commission review. I am also sympathetic to folks who complain about the size and complexity of the document, but these issues are not new. We have been talking about snow storage, dumpsters, zoning, and mixed use for nine years.

For example, we tried to implement mixed use zoning in Mountain View. We talked about it as a draw to make the area a center for diversity, artists and non- profits. Most agree it isn't working. But we have seen it work with specific proposals. So the committee changed course. Rather than create new mixed-use zoning districts, we decided to grow mixed use through inducements like less required parking, new standards within some current zones, and optional overlay districts.

Meetings of the Assembly Title 21 Committee have been publicly noticed multiple ways. Although I acknowledge it's difficult for people to attend meetings during the day, all meetings were recorded. They were and are available to the public. (Although not particularly user friendly, the 2012 recordings are maintained on the following webpage, under "Archived Videos & Agendas," "Other Meetings" and "Assembly Title 21 Committee" Committee meetings were open and always included public contributions.

After nine years, it is time to finish. The version of Title 21 before the Assembly is a major step in the right direction. It reflects the vision of two different mayors, two very different appointed Planning and Zoning Commissions, many different Assembly members, and many, many interested citizens.

It is time to support its practical solutions to complex problems that reflect the work of diverse viewpoints, not oppose it with unsupportable objections to a process that did not exclude the public.

We still don't have a perfect document; it will grow and change as Anchorage does. But it is good work. It is fairly balanced and reflects all of the municipality's comprehensive plans.

Debbie Ossiander has served on the Anchorage Assembly representing Chugiak and Eagle River since 2004, and previously served on the Anchorage School Board.