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Assembly members seek suspension of new rules on building designs

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 15, 2015

It took a decade to rewrite the city's land-use regulations, but they're already under fire — and may undergo revision — because builders say new limits on apartment size and design cost them too much money.

Anchorage Assembly members Ernie Hall and Amy Demboski, the former mayoral candidate, want an 18-month suspension of new building standards that regulate street-facing windows, storage space, sunlight, driveways, garages and landscaping for apartments, townhouses and condos.

The Hall-Demboski proposal also would entirely ax building height limits for the highest-density zoning in the city. Hall said this week, however, that he plans to re-insert height restrictions at the Assembly's June 23 meeting, when a public hearing on the proposal is set to take place.

Developers and engineers say the Hall-Demboski proposal will help stimulate housing construction, reduce project costs and increase efficiency. But neighborhood groups are against it, saying it rolls back long-fought restrictions designed to protect neighborhoods from bad development.

The proposal has also drawn criticism from city planners who spent eight months coming up with a separate set of land-use changes based on concerns from developers. In a recent memo, city planners wrote that the Hall-Demboski proposal represented "drastic changes … with no explanation or justification."

In an interview, Hall said his recommendations originated with a group formed through the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.'s Live, Work, Play initiative aimed at the city's housing crunch. The group met over 18 months starting last year, and its members included developers, bankers and large companies like ConocoPhillips and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.

Hall said the AEDC group held a work session with the Assembly on May 8, and afterward he asked for the group to put together a proposal. That very weekend, a small team drafted an ordinance and gave it to Hall and Demboski, said Tim Potter, vice resident at DOWL-HKM and a co-chair of the Live, Work, Play group.

"It's a first step in trying to make this a little more user-friendly for developers," Hall said, "but still making sure we're respecting and honoring maintaining neighborhoods in the community."

During the long Title 21 rewrite, Potter said, the effects of new design requirements on apartment and townhouse projects weren't adequately studied.

He also said there was frustration with the slow pace of making fixes to the regulations. He said a suspension of those regulations is needed to make time for fixes to happen.

"Over the next 18 months, there's not going to be 100 residential skyscrapers cropping up next to single-family neighborhoods," Potter said. "But there's projects that are being held up, are not going forward, because of some of the implications of the code."

Potter added that the intent is to amend the building standards permanently, well before the end of the 18-month suspension. The Hall-Demboski proposal says standards would be reinstated by the Assembly only if found consistent with the city comprehensive plan.

"We want this to be on the front burner. It's very important to the community," Potter said. "We believe this elevates it to the front burner, on high."

Separately, the planning department since last fall had been working with Assembly members on the Assembly's Title 21 committee to make a set of proposed changes to the land-use regulations. The changes were designed to ease restrictions and offer developers more choices when it comes to design decisions.

City planners say they're aware of issues with the new regulations. They want to make detailed changes to the building standards, however, while the Hall-Demboski proposal suspends them entirely. The planners' changes, introduced at the same time as the Hall-Demboski measure, are set to be deliberated in July by the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission.

In a memo May 29, city planners said the Hall-Demboski measure rolled back 10 years of community input. They said that, among other critiques, eliminating height limitations for high-density areas would be "inappropriate" for Anchorage's climate and scale, and could lead to more shade, worse views and less privacy. They also said suspension of building standards for apartments and townhouses, which did not exist in the "old code," defied the will of the community as a whole.

"The community has consistently called for design standards to improve the appearance and function of multifamily development," planners wrote in defense of their proposal.

That sentiment also sparked a response from neighborhood groups. The Airport Heights Community Council passed a resolution opposing the Hall-Demboski proposal, citing an "egregious lack of public involvement." Cheryl Richardson of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition characterized it as a "Hail Mary pass" for developers being fast-tracked over community concerns.

Other members of the Assembly's Title 21 committee, Bill Evans and Jennifer Johnston, said they're also skeptical. Johnston has referred to the Hall-Demboski proposal as a "nuclear option" as opposed to the approach of city planners.

Evans said he's in favor of changing Title 21 to address unintended consequences, and said the planning department proposal does that. He said the Hall-Demboski measure seems to address "intended consequences."

"It just kind of came out of the blue," Evans said in an interview last week. "I guess there's a lot of frustration (about our) dragging our feet on this, which I can appreciate."

He added that at this point, the city needs to "pick a horse and go with it."

This is the latest chapter in a policy saga that began in 2002, when Denver-based consultants began reviewing the city's land-use laws. The Assembly provisionally adopted elements of the code, chapter by chapter, between 2007 and 2010.

When Mayor Dan Sullivan was elected, the process halted while he and his consultant, former Assembly member Dan Coffey, reviewed the changes. Sullivan recommended some changes in 2011, and the Assembly finally passed the new code the following year.

Since then, the city planning department and policymakers have fielded mounting complaints from developers who say the new regulations are too expensive and burdensome.

Last fall, Johnston revived the dormant Title 21 committee to begin reviewing the regulations. Earlier this month, Assembly Chairman Dick Traini removed Johnston as Title 21 committee chair, saying it was "time for a change." Her replacement is Demboski, who didn't return a phone message seeking comment.

The Assembly hearing on the Hall-Demboski proposal will be a week before the new mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, takes office.

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