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Assemblyman wants to smooth permitting for builders

Rosemary Shinohara

Assembly member Adam Trombley is looking to reshape the city community development department, in an effort to lower property taxes and make new housing in Anchorage more affordable.

This week, he tried to eliminate several of the city's long-range planner jobs. The Assembly voted down the proposal, 7 to 4.

But next week, the Assembly will discuss a different Trombley plan to partially dismantle the Community Development Department, which includes city planning and permitting.

The first proposal -- to cut long-range planners -- was intended to save money, Trombley said. The other is to cut costs for builders: "The end game here is affordable housing," he said.



PARING PLANNERS

At Tuesday night's Assembly meeting, as the Assembly considered first-quarter budget changes, Trombley moved to cut $1.2 million for long-range-planning from this year's budget.

"We're done with Title 21," he told the Assembly. "There's going to be decreased workload in long-range planning."

The city had been revising Title 21, its zoning and land use code, for about 10 years, until finally approving the changes in February.

A lot of long-range planning is contracted out, and city planners manage the contracts, Trombley said.

Most of the money he wanted to cut could be used to reduce property taxes, he said.

The planning division has 23 people, including 13 planners, seven administrative support staff and three managers.

The long-range planners manage planning for the university-medical district, Chugach park access points, Government Hill, an update of the areawide trails plan, and a land-use plan map for the city, among other projects, Weaver told the Assembly.

The land-use plan is critical to implementing the Title 21 changes, Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston said. "This is really the crux of this community . . . It can't be shorted."

Those voting in favor of cutting the $1.2 million were Trombley, Chris Birch, Bill Starr and Amy Demboski. Those opposed were Patrick Flynn, Johnston, Ernie Hall, Elvi Gray-Jackson, Paul Honeman, Dick Traini and Tim Steele.



DEBATE OVER PERMITS

While the effort to directly eliminate long-range planners is dead for now, Trombley's proposal to reorganize the Community Development Department -- which does planning and permitting -- is to be discussed at an Assembly work session May 3, and at a regular Assembly meeting May 7.

Trombley's plan calls for moving permitting functions -- including building permits, plan reviews, inspections and zoning code enforcement -- out of Community Development and into the Public Works Department.

The Public Works Department now handles project management and engineering, maintenance and traffic engineering.

"Permits are taking too long," Trombley said. "Government is not friendly to industry and it's time to take a new approach."

He thinks the system will work better if permits are handled by public works because that will put all the different services under one umbrella.

"When you look at the functions we're aligning -- code enforcement, inspection, designing and building subdivisions -- all those functions will be under one department. So they can talk to each other," he said.

The proposal is stirring different reactions from builders.



TWO BUILDERS' VIEWS

Homebuilder Bill Taylor, owner of Colony Builders, agrees with Trombley.

Permits were handled by the Public Works Department until the city reorganized the system in 2010.

"As it's turned out, I think we need to go back to the traditional structure," Taylor said. "When I've got a problem I want to go to a public works guy rather than a planner person. Planners are more academic, public works people more practical."

Jerry Neeser of Neeser Construction wrote to the mayor saying his company opposes a return to the old way of doing things.

"We feel the reorganization . . . in 2010 aligned the various building departments into a more comprehensive and streamlined team," Neeser wrote.

"You have very qualified, highly experienced individuals in this department," Neeser said. Moving the permitting process will "slow down avenues that we have in the last few years learned to navigate."

Jerry Weaver, the community development director and head of city planning, said one reason to separate the Public Works Department from permitting is that public works itself builds things and needs permits -- a potential conflict.



WHAT THE MAYOR SAYS

Mayor Dan Sullivan said in an interview Thursday that permitting has worked under both public works and community development.

But he said shifting permitting now would be a "monumental change" when maybe one or two strategic moves would streamline the process.

Weaver said plans are in progress to improve customer service for permits in any case.

For example, he said, the Assembly this week approved hiring another plan reviewer, and a new front-counter staffer was recently hired. That will allow the department to have separate lines for building professionals, who know what they're doing, and individual homeowners, who often take a long time to get through the process, Weaver said.

And, he said, "The new plan review person is going to help us tremendously."

The city is also looking into electronic plan reviews, which could save time and money for both the city and customers, he said. The software costs about $350,000 but is expected to yield up to a 30 percent gain in efficiency, he said.

The Assembly work session on Trombley's proposal is at noon May 3 in City Hall.

Last year, Trombley was successful in getting Assembly approval of a law to allow some home builders to bypass the city for plan reviews. The builders can use an independent engineer instead.

"I'd stress the fact that we have an affordable housing crisis in this town, and that one of the best ways to combat it is to eliminate government intrusion," Trombley said.

 

 

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


By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
rshinohara@adn.com