A long-anticipated rewrite of Anchorage land use law, also known as Title 21, is set to come before the Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday. The revision has been in the works for nearly 10 years. Public hearings are expected to be lively.
Anchorage Assembly member Debbie Ossiander has been working on Title 21, in one way or another, for nearly a decade. To get there, she has spent hundreds of hours in meetings like this.
Ossiander is about to term out of her seat representing Chugiak/Eagle River and the rewrite is at the top of her ‘to do’ list. She chairs a committee preparing it for the Assembly to consider.
“Ossiander: Well I’m looking at my document here and its about 5 inches thick. I don’t know the number of pages. Eaton: A lot. Ossiander: A lot.”
In the end, the 14-chapter document ended up being nearly 800 pages long. Title 21 went through 5 or 6 reiterations by many officials over nearly a decade. It addresses the myriad issues that Anchorage faces as it grows and changes. It is meant to carry out Anchorage’s comprehensive plan which includes “Anchorage 2020.” The plan was a result of a long public process with thousands participating. The Title 21 review process was started in 2002. In 2010 the assembly provisionally adopted the majority of the chapters. Then, Mayor Dan Sullivan came into office and said he wanted a review of the whole thing. Once the review was done, Sullivan sent it to the Planning and Zoning Commission with some proposed amendments. In 2012, Ossiander’s committee went to work on it. What was produced, Ossiander says, is an incredibly complex document.
“Basically we’re dealing with every single city law relating to do with land use and how building is regulated in this town,” Ossiander said.
At first glance, the updated version does a lot to meet many goals of ‘Anchorage 2020’. It allows “mixed-use” in some zoning districts under certain conditions. It requires more sidewalks and walkways in areas that previously were not pedestrian friendly, it makes changes to limit “cookie cutter” developments and requires that landscaping be included in condominium plans instead of just slabs of cement for parking.
Shaun Debenham works in commercial real estate development. He recently helped draft a 16-page letter detailing the concerns of the Building Owners and Managers Association, or BOMA. He says the revision goes too far.
“You know in theory, it sounds great. Hey let’s require wider sidewalks, let’s require park benches and nicer facades, let’s require snow storage, let’s require, you know, all these different items. But that comes at a price and that price is it costs more to develop. You know if it costs a developer 10 percent more, that cost has to go somewhere, so that gets passed on to the users,” Debenham said.
He says, the rewrite as it stands, is sure to limit the construction of affordable housing because it would put to many constraints on developers. But some Anchorage residents say the revision does not go far enough. John Weddleton is one of them. He helps coordinate the non-profit Anchorage Citizens’ Coalition, formed in the 90s to make Anchorage a more livable city. He says the rewrite is too lax on developers sacrificing natural spaces and livability for cost. One area in the Title 21 revision that he’s concerned about is new rules for ‘mixed use’ development. He prefers the provisionally adopted version.
“The provisionally adopted version had three levels of mixed use and each one was more appropriate for the setting. So you could do mixed use in a neighborhood but it would be small. To just pretend that you can do just one type of mixed use — allow kind of the maximum level everywhere is very risky for Anchorage,” Weddleton said.
Weddleton also says he’s concerned about stream setbacks of just 25 feet. He would prefer what the Assembly adopted provisionally earlier, which required 50-foot stream setbacks. Weddleton says these changes lead straight back to attorney Dan Coffey who was hired by Mayor Sullivan in 2010 to do a review of Title 21 as a consultant. He provided that review in 2011. The planning and zoning commission took many of his recommendations and passed them on to the Title 21 committee. Weddleton alleges that the committee followed those recommendations closely instead of looking to the Anchorage 2020 plan, developed by the citizens of Anchorage.
“They’re guiding effort was Dan Coffey’s proposals. It wasn’t the Anchorage 2020 plan, it wasn’t the input from people 8 years prior. That’s what they followed as they went through and recommended changes,” Weddleton said.
Ossiander says that’s not true and that Coffey has not been involved with her committees work. Besides being an attorney, Dan Coffey has served on the Anchorage Assembly and on the planning and zoning commission. He is also involved in commercial real estate development. Coffey admits he owns 6 commercial properties in Anchorage but refutes the allegations.
“I have opinions about what is an appropriate way to regulate land use and I gave those opinions. These people on the planning and zoning commission and the people in the Title 21 committee who have minds of their own. On some instances they took my recommendation, in other areas they did not.”
All chapters of Title 21 go before the Anchorage Assembly at Tuesday’s regular meeting where the body will hear public testimony.
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