The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night passed ordinances that overhauled cellphone tower regulations, made electric bikes legal to ride on city bike paths and set up a new system for online room rental services like Airbnb to pay taxes to the city.
An effort to ban smoking and vaping in Town Square Park failed, for the second time in a year.
Cell tower regulations pass
After months of tweaking, the Assembly passed a sweeping update to local regulations for cellphone towers.
The ordinance makes it easier for telecommunications companies to build towers disguised as trees and place multiple small antennas on existing light or electrical poles. There's also new requirements for the minimum separation distance between a cellphone tower and a home.
Other parts of the ordinance are aimed at encouraging companies to work together to mount antennas on existing towers instead of building new ones.
Officials said the ordinance was aimed at protecting neighborhoods from tall, unsightly antennas while making it easier for operators to meet growing demand for wireless technology.
At Tuesday's meeting, representatives of the telecommunications industry expressed support for the ordinance, with GCI lawyer Mark Moderow calling it a "workable compromise."
Community council members, who were part of a working group to examine the ordinance, expressed concern that the measure didn't go far enough to protect neighborhoods. But some also said they were glad for the provisions that will keep cellphone towers a certain distance from homes.
Bed taxes and room hosting
The Assembly also passed a measure that sets up a system for room-hosting platforms, like Airbnb, to voluntarily agree to collect taxes for the city from operators who rent rooms.
At this point, room rental hosting services like Airbnb are under no obligation to pay room taxes in Anchorage. Individual operators using the service are supposed to register with the city and pay the taxes themselves.
City treasurer Dan Moore said a little more than 300 operators are registered to pay bed taxes to the city. About two-thirds are bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals, Moore said.
But it's also possible for an operator to be registered with a hosting platform and not registered with the city. That operator wouldn't be known to city tax collectors.
With the ordinance, Moore said, the city hopes to streamline reporting and payment requirements and collect more in taxes in the process.
He said the city is close to an agreement with Airbnb — the first of its kind in Anchorage — that would set up a system for allowing Airbnb to pay the taxes.
If Airbnb starts collecting the tax, the city will then be able to identify operators that aren't currently paying, Moore said. He said Airbnb would include the tax upfront in the price of the room booking.
Anyone operating outside the hosting platform will have to register separately with the city.
In response to concerned testimony from a representative of the Anchorage Alaska Bed and Breakfast Association, Moore emphasized that the ordinance did not affect online reservation services, just online hosting platforms.
Anchorage's bed tax rate is currently set at 12 percent of the cost of the room. The city is expecting to collect about $27 million in bed taxes this year.
Moore estimated that Tuesday's ordinance could net an extra $200,000 in tax revenue for the city, a figure expected to rise over time.
Electric bikes now allowed on bike paths
An ordinance that allows low-speed electric bikes on paved bike paths, sidewalks and recreational trails passed the Assembly unanimously Tuesday night.
The ordinance, from Assembly Vice Chair Dick Traini, sought to clarify that electric bikes — powered by a combination of a battery motor and human pedaling and limited to a speed of 20 mph — should be treated as bicycles, not motor vehicles. Traini said he wanted to make it easier for aging Anchorage residents to access the trails.
City law had been vague on the question of e-bikes, which are increasingly popular in Anchorage. City attorney Bill Falsey reviewed city law and determined e-bikes were restricted to roads and streets.
The ordinance would allow slow e-bikes to access the same places as non-electric bicycles, including paved bike paths, sidewalks and trails.
Ban on smoking and vaping in Town Square Park fails
Another Traini measure, to ban smoking and vaping in Town Square Park, failed in a 5-6 vote later in the evening.
Traini said he wanted to ban all types of smoking in the park and make it a more pleasant environment for passersby. But other Assembly members said they were worried about unfairly punishing law-abiding citizens or targeting certain groups of people hanging out in the park.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that e-bikes would not be allowed on unpaved trails. E-bikes are now allowed wherever non-electric bikes are allowed.