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Assembly moves forward on land use code changes

Posted: April 3, 2012 - 12:54pm

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly moved forward with visions of streamlining city development documents and affirming a vision and code for the Willoughby District.

The changes in code apply to the Willoughby District — which is referred to as Chapter 5 of the Comprehensive Plan. The plan lays out a vision, developed by the Lands and Resources Department and related committees. It envisions a cleaner, safer, more population-dense area with taller, more attractive buildings instead of lots of gray-space parking lots, chain link fences and “mega-blocks.”

The plan will give incentives for developers to build according to this vision, allowing for different building options than anywhere else in the city. This includes encouraging two- to five-story buildings, residences on top of retail, parking to the side, back or under buildings instead of front, sidewalks, building to the property line, hiding dumpsters and electric equipment, and other goals.

There are a couple portions still under consideration. One goal of the plan is to create an energy district that could provide energy efficient heating to all public — and possibly even private — buildings. Lands and Resources Director Heather Marlow said they’re working with the U.S. Coast Guard on whether the square footage of the public facilities is big enough for the energy district to be viable.

Assembly Member Carlton Smith asked what kinds of vehicles for funding would be available for the city to help turn these visions into reality. Marlow said there aren’t any specifically in mind at this moment. However, she said, identifying and securing funding resources would be the next steps. She said there could be several kinds of options — but two initial ideas could be simulating Anchorage in taking taxes from a specific zone and putting them back into that district for development, or the city could go with a “softer approach” and have one-on-one discussions with developers and make deals as proposals are submitted.

Marlow said implementing the plan needs to be done with a dose of caution. She said while the comments and suggestions about the vision for the district have been positive, developers and planners have emphasized that this is a city vision and city plan, so the responsibility should be on city shoulders — not predominantly on theirs.

In other business, the Assembly approved updating Title 53 of the Land Use Code by a split decision. Assembly Members Mary Becker and Randy Wanamaker were opposed. The update cleaned up and revised processes the Community Development Department and related areas use in giving guidance on development.

Cynthia Johnson, deputy lands manager, explained the process to the Assembly after Becker questioned the limitations of sale of wetlands and other topics.

“We did not attempt to address policy in this point in time,” Johnson said. “We discussed it internally. In our conversation with the Law Department, we looked at what we were trying to achieve here. We have a lot of work to do in terms of processes we want to make more efficient. We have a vision for how the office can operate much better than it does today. That particular portion of the code are principles that have been modeled largely after the Comprehensive Plan, which is currently being updated. Our position is, it would be timely to do the policy portion of this code after we update the processes portion of the code and after the Comprehensive Plan is updated.”

Becker said she valued the work the department had done in updating the code, but she had serious concerns over the policies. Becker said she couldn’t support approving the changes because she felt the Comprehensive Plan should be updated first.

The Assembly also unanimously approved a change in the code that clarified the process for what happens when the Planning Commission denies action like a rezoning request. The change clarifies that if the Planning Commission denies a rezoning, the matter is a final decision and may be appealed to the Assembly. This clarification arose because of confusion around the process when the Atlin Drive rezoning and appeals occurred.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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