Anchorage Assembly members who were behind a controversial effort to overhaul the city’s zoning rules will introduce a more targeted proposal that will still reshape zoning while addressing fierce criticism about the original plan.
Anchorage Assembly members Meg Zaletel and Daniel Volland said their new proposal, to be introduced at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting, has the same goal as the earlier measure: to reverse a housing shortage that has contributed to rising costs for homes and rentals, and that experts say is hurting economic growth.
The new proposal would still sharply reduce the city’s residential zoning categories, from 15 to five, but it would be based on land-use categories spelled out in the 2040 land-use plan adopted six years ago, according to an overview released by the Assembly on Friday.
It would only apply to the Anchorage Bowl, not Eagle River and Girdwood, unlike the earlier version. Those communities are part of Anchorage, but have their own unique zoning districts.
The original proposal would have shrunk the city’s residential zones to essentially one category, divided only by areas with city-provided plumbing and areas like those near the Hillside that use wells and septic systems. It also proposed a 1 1/2-year process to rewrite residential sections of Title 21, the land-use code, a period critics said was far too short.
Kevin Cross, a sponsor of the original effort who received especially strong blowback over the proposal from his constituents in Chugiak-Eagle River, said in an interview Friday that he is not sponsoring the new measure. He said he supports fewer restrictions and might support it in the future, depending on the details.
Cross said he was recently told by the municipal attorney’s office that any changes to the zoning rules in Chugiak-Eagle River will need to be initially considered by the Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board, which was established in Title 21 to make recommendations on land-use issues.
“This no longer involves Chugiak and Eagle River,” he said. “So I’ll work with my district and advisory board to do our changes as we see necessary.”
Zaletel said the new proposal is meant to honor the city’s planning documents and the extensive community efforts that went into those plans, while providing more clarity on how the changes might impact residents, she said.
“This should express to the community that we heard you loud and clear,” Zaletel said in an interview this week.
The new proposal is called the HOME initiative, or Housing Opportunities in the Municipality for Everyone.
The goal is to provide flexibility in the city’s code so more dwellings can be built, while protecting existing design standards, Volland said.
The 2040 land-use plan, an update to the city’s 2020 comprehensive plan, makes a case for consolidating zoning and increasing housing density in the Anchorage Bowl, Volland said. But that goal is often at odds with Title 21 code, the actual rules, which can be much more restrictive, he said.
“We need to have some additional flexibility when it comes to implementing the land-use plan,” he said.
The ordinance proposes five zoning classifications: Those with single-family and two-family homes scattered across most of Anchorage; those with large lots around the Hillside area; and three types of neighborhoods generally featuring mixed uses and increasing levels of housing density, primarily along busier streets and highways.
Zaletel said residents can look at the 2040 land-use map and see what zoning category they would fall into under the new proposal, she said.
The proposal, if it passes, would be limited in its impact because much of the Anchorage Bowl is already developed, Zaletel said.
But it could allow say, a greater opportunity for residents in a single-family home neighborhood to turn their house into a duplex, creating a rental for a young couple or an aging-in-place opportunity for a retiree, Zaletel said.
Volland said that if the proposal passes, that would lead to a code rewriting process with extensive public engagement.
He could see the proposal allowing, say, fourplexes to be built on slightly smaller lots than is currently permitted. That would provide developers with more options in some neighborhoods, such as when an old single-family home needs to be torn down and replaced.
The Assembly over the last year has taken steps to loosen rules to encourage housing construction, including removing off-street parking requirements for new developments, and expanding areas where accessory dwelling units, so-called mother-in-law apartments, can be built.
But Volland said the Assembly has also introduced new rules, including recently adopting an ordinance that added requirements such as limiting driveway sizes to preserve green space and closer sidewalk connections.
“So it’s a balance,” he said. “There are rules that are beneficial to make our neighborhoods safe and accessible and healthy, and there are some rules that aren’t serving us when it comes to our housing crisis.”
Housing shortage blamed for blend of problems
The number of new single-family homes built in Anchorage last year reached its lowest point in a decade, with about 180 constructed, said Bill Popp with the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
He and other economic observers have said excess permitting and zoning rules are one factor that’s pushing up costs for Anchorage builders, along with rising borrowing costs, inflation for materials, and a shortage of workers that’s boosting labor costs.
Rental rates and average home prices in Anchorage have risen rapidly in recent years, with an average home costing $465,000, economists have reported.
The high housing costs have contributed to a declining population for years, and a worker shortage that’s holding back the economy, Popp said.
Zaletel and Cross, in sponsoring the original zoning overhaul plan, had said they wanted to help resolve those housing and economic problems by streamlining rules to encourage the construction of more dwellings.
They said they also wanted to spark a discussion about the problem — and the proposal did that.
It drew an outcry from many opponents who said the changes were too dramatic and could permit developers to throw up apartment complexes next to neighborhoods consisting only of single-family homes.
But the measure also had fans who said it would provide much-needed affordable housing and could lead to more walkable neighborhoods with a mix of small shops and stores.
Former South Anchorage Assembly member John Weddleton said the new proposal is a better fit with the city’s long-range plans, compared to the earlier version, which he had strongly criticized.
But Weddleton, a member of the Abbott Loop Community Council, said it’s likely that any effort to rewrite the code will result in the same solutions that are already in the code, such as special considerations for lots with steep slopes on the Hillside.
“So you have to make these unique considerations for these special geographic features,” and that will lead once again to the need for several zoning categories, he said.
Whatever the Assembly does, “they just need to do it carefully with a lot of community involvement, as opposed to getting seven votes and making it so,” he said.
‘Very happy’ in Eagle River
Cross said he’ll focus on working with the community of Chugiak-Eagle River and securing funding to update the comprehensive plan there, for the first time in many years.
Cross, a real estate broker, faced strong criticism from radio talk show hosts and other conservatives recently after recorded comments he’d made to a group of realtors became public, including suggesting that he was purchasing a 5-acre lot in Chugiak because it would soon be easier to develop there after the zoning code is overhauled.
Cross said in an interview this week that the property he’s looking at buying is a commercial property, not a residential property, and the proposals looked only at making residential zoning changes.
“Where is the conflict of interest when it’s residential zoning, dealing with small multifamily, that we’re contending with?” he said.
Cross plans to join Zaletel and Volland at Tuesday’s Assembly meeting as they move to set aside the original proposal, the Assembly said in a statement Friday.
That will effectively cancel the public hearing for the original proposal, which had been set for the meeting, Zaletel said.
A hearing for the new version is planned for Sept. 26, she said.
Chuck Homan II, vice president of the Eagle River Community Council, said residents there had been upset in part because the earlier version bypassed community input and long-range plans the community had developed for the area, Homan said.
He said area residents who attended a recent community meeting called by Cross this week were told that Eagle River would no longer be part of the proposal.
“People who attended the meeting were very happy to hear that,” he said.