Anchorage

Developers, planners clash over implementation of new Anchorage land use regulations

In the months since a major rewrite of Anchorage land use regulations took effect, anyone applying for a municipal building permit has had two options.

The first option: Submit an application under the old version of the regulations, also known as Title 21. The second option: Apply under the new set of regulations, which took effect Jan. 1 after a decade-long rewrite process.

Maintaining two sets of regulations until the end of the year was supposed to be a cushion as the city familiarized itself with the "new" Title 21. But, arguing more progress needs to be made, policymakers and developers are pushing to extend the period to voluntarily apply for a permit under the old regulations for at least another year, despite the opposition of the department that handles permit applications.

A proposal to extend the period to choose between the old and new regulations, sponsored by Anchorage Assembly members Jennifer Johnston and Amy Demboski, will come before the municipal Planning and Zoning Commission at its Monday night meeting. The Assembly is scheduled to take up the proposal at its meeting Tuesday night.

Johnston chairs the Assembly's Title 21 committee, which recently emerged from dormancy to tackle issues related to the new regulations. She said one of her chief concerns is that a user's guide promised by the planning department has not yet been developed.

Meanwhile, time has run out to work out even some of the technical problems with the new regulations, Johnston said.

"The time constraints really were beyond flexible," Johnston said.

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Those heading the Anchorage Community Development Office see the situation differently. In a five-and-a-half page memo to the Planning and Zoning Commission, Erika McConnell, manager of the current planning section, details the reasons behind her department's opposition to pushing back the expiration date for the "old" code.

The memo emphasizes the burden navigating two land use codes has placed on a staff stretched thin by years of budget cuts. About 90 percent of the applications come in under the old code, according to McConnell, and staffers haven't had time to become familiar with the new one.

Members of the public who are not developers have had "an extremely difficult time" navigating between two codes, further consuming staff time, McConnell wrote.

Experienced developers, meanwhile, have expressed more comfort with the old regulations. Those who do opt for the new regulations do so for reasons that include a lower parking requirement, McConnell wrote in the memo.

"While there are some changes to the code that would be beneficial," McConnell wrote, "staff is unaware of any project that has not gone forward due to a needed code change."

Johnston, meanwhile, said the uncertainty surrounding the new regulations is exactly why the process needs to be extended a year.

"To tie it up with a piece of spaghetti instead of a ribbon doesn't make sense to me," Johnston said.

Developers say changes in regulations over the years have increased construction costs and stretched project timelines.

Shaun Debenham is a principal with Debenham Properties, an Anchorage firm that develops both commercial and multifamily housing. One of the firm's current projects is a 54-unit multifamily complex in South Anchorage, which Debenham described as the only market-rate multifamily development in Anchorage in the last nine years.

He said there are various aspects of the new code that make multifamily development more expensive.

"Basically, it's making a bad problem even worse," Debenham said. In a letter to Jerry Weaver, the city planning director, Debenham outlined the reasons why the South Anchorage multifamily project would not have been possible under the new Title 21 regulations.

He's among those pushing to not only delay the implementation of the new code for another year but also make changes to the portion of the code associated with multifamily development.

In her memo, McConnell sought to counter some of the arguments voiced by Debenham and others in the development community. She wrote that testing of the new regulations has been adequate and well-documented, the decade-long rewrite process was exhaustive, and, because of staff shortages, waiting for a user guide could add years to the period of choosing between the two set of regulations.

She also urged respect for the work that went into developing the new Title 21.

"Is it perfect? No. Is it perfectable? No -- there will always be issues that staff will work with the community to correct," McConnell wrote.

In an interview before the proposal was set to come before the Planning and Zoning Commission, the chairman of the commission, Jim Fergusson, said the unfamiliarity surrounding the new code was to be expected, one way or another.

"If you've got a car you've driven for 20 years, you don't look at the owner's manual very often," he said.

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"Now you've got a brand new car in front ... you're going to look at the owner's manual a lot."

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Jim Fergusson.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

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