Assembly set for marathon meeting on tennis, budget, land use

Nathaniel Herz

A marathon Anchorage Assembly meeting could be on tap Tuesday, with members set to tackle a range of contentious topics -- from the proposed tennis courts in Turnagain, to approval of the city budget, to a set of changes city officials have proposed to Anchorage's new land use laws.

There's so much to do that the Assembly is starting three hours early, at 2 p.m., when it's holding a special session to debate amendments to Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposed $470 million budget for 2014, as well as other fiscal measures. Chairman Ernie Hall said he hopes the meeting will finish early, but he's prepared for it to last until midnight -- which he said could be necessary.

"We've got a huge amount of stuff we've just got to get caught up with," he said. "Bring your NoDoz, and your coffee."

At the top of the list is what to do with $10.5 million in grant funding from this year's state capital budget -- a question that's bedeviled the Assembly for the last month and a half.

Some of the money is supposed to be used to build new indoor tennis courts in the Turnagain neighborhood. But several Assembly members are withholding their approval, saying that the request for the money, which the Alaska Tennis Association and Sullivan made to state legislators, came without their knowledge -- and without the knowledge of some of the officials in Juneau who voted on it.

There are multiple competing measures likely to come for a vote on Tuesday, and they're split on how much of the money is dedicated to tennis.

One measure, sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Steele -- with Sullivan's backing -- would dedicate $7.7 million to construction of a recreation center in Turnagain, which would include the tennis courts. The rest of the money would go towards renovations and upgrades to city ice arenas.

Another, sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Starr, would put more money towards the ice arenas, and just $4 million of the $10.5 million grant towards tennis. And instead of paying for new courts, that money would go towards buying an existing facility owned by the Alaska Club.

That's an option that's been barred by state officials, who have said buying existing courts was not the intent of the grant. But Starr wants to place the money in escrow in anticipation of getting the money re-granted by state officials next year.

"I don't believe by putting it in escrow, with the intention of that, violates the terms," he said. "The worst thing that happens is we get our hand slapped -- saying, 'you can't do this.'"

A third option, from Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, will not be up for a vote until next month.

Demboski would spend $4.5 million of the money on existing facilities in Anchorage, and return $6 million for the tennis courts to the state, since, according to documents submitted with her proposal, that money "is not matched to commitment and planning by the municipality for operation and maintenance."

Before voting on the grant money, the Assembly will consider Sullivan's budget proposal, as well as 49 different amendments submitted by members.

Public testimony on the budget is closed, according to Hall, the chairman, so Assembly members will spend their time debating each of the amendments, voting on them, and then considering the full budget.

If it passes, Sullivan can strike amendments with a line-item veto, which would then take eight votes -- out of 11 Assembly members -- to overturn.

The Assembly will also consider a package of proposed changes to Title 21, the city's land use law.

A rewrite of Title 21 passed earlier this year, and now staff members from the city's community development department are asking the Assembly to fix "various issues" that need "correction or clarification," according to documents submitted with the proposal.

Demboski and Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston are questioning whether the fixes are more than just technical. They, along with former Assemblywoman Debbie Ossiander, are citing what they say are tightened permitting rules, more stringent reviews for new trails, and even prohibitions on keeping animals on certain types of property.

"This is a huge administrative power grab on personal property rights and a hijacking of the public process," Demboski wrote in an email.

Jerry Weaver, the community development department's director, said that the revisions were primarily integrating changes that had already been approved by the Assembly while it was debating the Title 21 rewrite, but weren't included when the measure was passed.

"The Assembly adopted the exact language that we're putting into code," he said. "It's cleanup."

Residents anxious about a new taxi ordinance will have to wait until December -- that measure is on the Assembly's agenda for Tuesday, but Hall said it would be pushed back to subsequent meeting.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.