Perhaps no topic in municipal governance simultaneously inspires as many eye-rolls and furious arguments as residential zoning. It’s the sort of thing that homeowners find mind-numbing in the abstract, but infuriating when applied to their house or the one just over the back fence. So it’s not surprising that a proposal to collapse Anchorage’s whopping 15 residential zones into two — or, as of the most recent Assembly meeting, only one — has been met with fervent opposition in some quarters.
But Anchorage residents should give simplified zoning a chance, both for its benefits in cutting red tape and for underscoring the principle that here in Alaska, government shouldn’t be too prescriptive in telling you what you can and can’t do on your own property.
There can be little debate that Anchorage’s residential zoning has tilted too far into a complex web of restrictions and incentives that leave even seasoned developers and contractors wading through excessive bureaucracy. If you’re inclined to doubt that, here’s just one paragraph from the municipality’s R-4 — multifamily residential mixed-use district — zone description: “A floor area bonus is allowed equal to one-third of the sum of step back areas on each upper floor where the step back is at least 16 feet from the face of the building at the floor immediately below, such that the floor’s existence does not increase the amount of shadowing on surrounding residences, private open spaces, sidewalks, schools, or parks on March/September 21, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. solar time.” Good luck doing the calculations to figure out whether you can add on to your garage.
In fairness to those who created Anchorage’s residential zones and added to or modified them during the past several decades, each zoning change was an intentional effort to shape our city, to try to keep future development in line with what residents felt was beneficial for the city’s growth and character. But, like the classic Alaska house where each successive owner adds a different-styled addition to the existing structure, the net product has been a hodgepodge that doesn’t really line up with any real vision of how the city should look. If Anchorage’s residential zoning were a house, it would be leaking from mismatched roof joints and in need of reinforcement at the foundation.
The case for simplified zoning in general terms is easy to make. Reducing Anchorage’s residential zones drastically would provide developers and homeowners more freedom in designing, building and maintaining their homes. The reduction in bureaucracy would reduce the burden on municipal officials and shrink the time needed to permit and build new homes. It would help ease the ongoing housing shortage in the Anchorage bowl and help make an economic case for residents to live close to where they work instead of commuting from the Mat-Su.
Where things get sticky is the particular application of simplified zoning, as many residents are fearful that without the strictures of extremely specific zone descriptions, developers might build or remodel properties in their neighborhoods in a way that diminishes their enjoyment of their own homes — or their property values. It’s true that more permissive zoning could lead to the construction of homes that don’t sit well with neighbors, but that’s also a reality with our current zoning scheme. The fact is, we’re always at the mercy of our neighbors’ decisions about how they dispose of their property. Anchorage residents have suffered from a lack of control over their own property, stifling development and improvements. Resorting to overly restrictive zoning as a means of trying to control their behavior is an abuse of the process, and it’s the kind of not-in-my-backyard mentality that should be anathema to Alaskans.
Simplified zoning won’t turn housing and other development into a complete free-for-all. Much of Anchorage’s Title 21, which governs zoning in the municipality, would remain intact, and part of the Assembly’s job should zoning reform pass would be to decide which aspects of existing residential zoning to make more universal. The changes also wouldn’t take effect until 2025, giving residents ample time to raise concerns and have them addressed via the legislative process.
Anchorage devised its current zones based on its needs as it grew. Now that the municipality has matured and property available for development has dwindled, our needs have changed. Instead of restricting what can be built, we need to provide incentives to build housing that ensures everyone who wants to live in Anchorage can do so without spending beyond their means or settling for a deficient property at an overinflated price.