Title 21 land-use code passes Assembly after a decade of debate

Rosemary Shinohara

The rewrite of the Anchorage land use code that's been in progress for ten years finally won approval from the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night.

The vote was 9-2 with Adam Trombley and Patrick Flynn voting against.

But before the final vote, the Assembly, with little debate, adopted 6-5 a major amendment that eliminates commercial design standards except for big box stores.

Assemblyman Chris Birch proposed axing the commercial design standards. He said they were "additional and unnecessary."

Former Anchorage Assemblywoman Sheila Selkregg in an interview called the commercial design decision "stunning," and a reactionary view of development. "It's certainly not a reflection of the 2020 plan," the city's comprehensive plan, she said.

The overall land use law, Title 21, will shape the future look and feel of Anchorage, and is supposed to be built on the 2020 plan adopted in 2001.

Title 21 sets rules for such things as how much landscaping should be in a business parking lot, the appearance of residential buildings, where sidewalks should go, what kind of development can be in a particular zoning district, and much more.

Assembly members were making major changes in the 700-plus-page document, or trying to, up to the last minute.

The Assembly approved about 150 amendments that had been agreed upon by an Assembly committee headed by Debbie Ossiander. Then they went through a raft of amendments proposed by individual Assembly members, including the Birch amendment on commercial design.

The commercial design standards that were killed encouraged buildings to be connected to the street with windows, visible entries and pedestrian access on the street side. They did not regulate the aesthetics of buildings. The planning department recommended keeping them.

Voting in favor of dropping commercial design rules were Cheryl Frasca, Ernie Hall, Jennifer Johnston, Trombley, Bill Starr and Birch. Against were Ossiander, Flynn, Elvi-Gray Jackson, Paul Honeman and Dick Traini.

Another major change:

On advice of the Assembly committee, the Assembly agreed to allow people to add mother-in-law apartments to their single family houses on large lots in all but R-1 districts.

"This is a big change," Ossiander said in a work session last week. "But we got a strong push from the mayor's task force on affordable housing."

Cheryl Richardson of the Anchorage Citizen's Coalition, which advocates on behalf of neighborhoods, sent out an e-mail after the work session saying the addition of mother-in-law apartments in single family neighborhoods is significant enough that it deserves its own public hearing before the Assembly.

On other issues:

• Rural lighting: The Assembly approved a proposal from Jennifer Johnston to allow lower level lighting for collector streets in rural subdivisions, specifying that she had in mind Potter Valley and Goldenview Drive. She offered to bring developer Connie Yoshimura up to explain the need, but the Assembly decided not to take any more public testimony.

The Assembly voted 7-4 for it. Mayor Sullivan immediately vetoed it, saying it should go on hold. The Assembly then overrode the veto 8-3, with Traini, Honeman and Gray-Jackson supporting the mayor.

• Stream setbacks: The Assembly voted down a proposal by Flynn to require new structures to be at least 50 feet from streams, versus the existing 25 feet. His proposal was defeated 7-4, with Flynn, Traini, Honeman, and Gray-Jackson in favor of it.

Ossiander said the city needs a few more months to study it. The Assembly did approve an amendment saying the city would work on a plan over the next six months for wider stream setbacks.

"Jumping Jiminy Cricket on a pogo stick," Flynn said. The Assembly had 10 years, and now it needed another six months? he asked.

• Electronic signs: The Assembly voted 7-4 against an amendment proposed by Trombley that he said had been requested by the Anchorage Baptist Temple. The amendment would have let electronic signs change every two seconds, instead of the current rule, allowing them to change copy every 20 seconds.

Those in favor were Traini, Honeman, Trombley and Ossiander.

The rewritten code goes into effect Dec. 1, 2013. But developers can choose to use either the current code or the new code through Dec. 31, 2014.

The rewrite began in 2002, a year after Anchorage adopted a new comprehensive development plan.

From the beginning, there's been tension between conflicting goals. Many wanted the new code to improve Anchorage's appearance and make it more walking-friendly. Others sought to hold down the cost of development, and limit what they saw as unnecessary regulation.

Between 2007 and 2010, under Mayors Mark Begich, then Dan Sullivan, the Assembly "provisionally" adopted the new code, chapter by chapter. But that version - stronger on the appearance and walker-friendly provisions than the version before the Assembly on Tuesday - never made it to a final vote.

Sullivan in 2010 hired a consultant, former Assemblyman Dan Coffey, to help put the mayor's own stamp on the rewrite. Then the Planning and Zoning Commission, largely filled with Sullivan appointees, decided to go through the entire proposal and substantially rewrite it.

Finally, Ossiander's committee plowed through all of the different versions, and came up with the document before the Assembly Tuesday.

In public hearings, people on all sides of the issue said they had problems with the most recent version. Many residents said they wanted the Assembly to go back to the plan provisionally adopted between 2007 and 2010. Several builders and building owners and managers said there are too many restrictions, and the city will be infringing on private property rights.


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