Mat-Su Assembly spikes bid to put zoning to a vote

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- The "z word" won't show up on Mat-Su Borough ballots this fall.

There will also be no referendum on splitting this Ireland-sized borough in half.

The Mat-Su Assembly on Tuesday night defeated a proposal to ask voters in October whether they support zoning in the notoriously government-averse borough, with opponents saying the move seemed geared to a "no" vote that could be used to undercut future planning efforts.

The Assembly two weeks ago defeated another proposal to see if voters want to split into two separate boroughs -- the more urbanized southern portion and the more rural Susitna Valley to the north -- when they voted against even giving that question a public hearing.

Officials here still avoid the use of the word "permit" even as the Valley's population continues to grow to nearly 100,000 residents, about a third of whom commute to Anchorage. That growth is occurring in the already dense "core area" around Wasilla and Palmer and out Knik-Goose Bay Road, but new subdivisions and roads are also extending into historically less-developed spots from the foothills of Hatcher Pass to Big Lake and north toward Willow.

It's also changing the character of the place, to the extent that some Assembly members said they wanted to gauge zoning opinions today, two decades or so since the valley started booming.

But the Assembly on Tuesday night voted 4-3 against putting an advisory vote about zoning on the October ballot, with opponents saying it would oversimplify the conversation about planning and not address the different needs of the more urbanized core area versus more rural outlying areas.

"It's kind of like asking a taxpayer do they want to pay taxes," said Assembly member Vern Halter, a former Iditarod musher from Willow. "To me, it's always going to be in the negative."

The idea came from Assembly member Darcie Salmon, a former borough mayor and longtime Wasilla-area real estate agent. Salmon also proposed the divided borough question.

Salmon said he was motivated by the area's growth. He noted that the borough population has more than doubled since 1990, ballooning from about 40,000 residents to 90,000 in 2010. Current estimates put the Mat-Su population at around 95,000.

The vote could help pinpoint parts of the borough where residents favor zoning, Salmon said Tuesday night. "It'll give a thumb on the pulse sensibility for (how) these 50,000 new Valley residents, wherever they may have come from, might feel about individual zoning in the precincts in which they live."

Assembly members Jim Sykes and Matthew Beck, who represent an area from Palmer to Sutton and Butte, pointed to a community survey last year that, among other things, already polled the public on zoning and land use.

Assembly member Ron Arvin, a state House candidate who represents neighborhoods near Wasilla, pointed out a vote would reach more people, though turnout at Mat-Su polls hovers around only about 20 percent.

Assembly member Steve Colligan, from Wasilla, said a vote could also show whether people living near a city favor "the borough stepping out of the way" and the city expanding its boundaries so they get police and other services.

Only two people spoke to the proposal during a public hearing before the vote Tuesday. Neither favored it.

"I think it's a terrible dumbing-down of the conversation about zoning," said Krista Maciolek, a Palmer lawyer.

But some seemingly unlikely fans of zoning are emerging. Steve Bargabos, a longtime business owner in the Valley, favors zoning over the current situation. Bargabos, who owns B&E Construction, said the lack of predictable land-use laws makes for a confusing and sometimes frustrating situation for entrepreneurs.

Right now, Bargabos said during an interview Wednesday, you buy a piece of property and then wait for planning or platting officials to sign off on development plans.

"They can say 'we kind of like this, we may or may not do this,'" he said. "There's no solid concrete. At least if you had zoning you would know. You buy a piece of property in this area, you can do anything you want to do with it as long as you meet their standards."