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Planners split on comprehensive plan map issue

Posted: April 10, 2013 - 12:06am

A request to amend the city’s Comprehensive Plan map to reclassify some land once used as a gravel extraction pit from rural reserve uses to commercial and industrial uses failed 3-3 after a vote by the City and Borough of Juneau Planning Commission Tuesday night.

Greg Chaney of the Planning Department said it is under review whether the request will move on to the Assembly following the split vote.

Commissioners split over the proposal, with two members recused due to conflict of interest. While recognizing private property rights, some commissioners noted that the project could affect an iconic viewshed — a seasonal field of fireweed and a backdrop of water and mountains stretching into the downtown area.

Some also voiced frustration that the city has missed opportunities to purchase the land next to Sunny Point and keep it as a buffer to the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Reserve.

Commissioner Nicole Grewe said the Comprehensive Plan provides mixed messages.

Commissioner Nathan Bishop moved a motion to modify the request, but voiced regret that the city has not moved to safeguard the land. “It’s like Joni Mitchell said, we’re paving paradise to put up a parking lot.”

A lot, he noted, the applicants have every legal right to build under current zoning.

Commissioner Benjamin Haight called this issue “a tough one” but expressed support for sending the request to the Assembly because “as Commissioner Bishop says, we don’t have full control of the land. In that respect I do support this.”

Any change to the Comprehensive Plan’s map would have had to be considered by the Borough Assembly. Approval of a change to the map would not rezone the land, which is presently zoned Rural Reserve and is already available for limited development.

Last year the developer’s request was to reclassify the whole parcel, which is next to Juneau International Airport near Yandukin Drive. That proposal was pulled before the hearing by the developer, and the developer’s spokesperson noted that this is a different game plan that leaves undisturbed land as is.

Speaking for landowner Bicknell Incorporated, Murray Walsh told the commission that the wetland area would not be proposed for any change. Changes are proposed to the disturbed area of the land, which now contains a pond that has been called an aviation hazard because it attracts large waterfowl.

Walsh defended the developer’s request to have both commercial and industrial zoning available in the future, noting that a suites hotel was built no farther from the airport than the land in question. City staff had recommended the land not be used for commercial as that could mean putting residential uses too close to the airport.

Resident Pat O’Brien spoke against changing the map, noting that wild bird habitat has already been lost. She summarized comments from others that were submitted in letter form. Concerns included possible impacts in the state wetlands next to the area, and loss of viewshed.

Tina Brown of Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Alaska Wildlife Alliance Southeast said the proposal before planners is different than what was proposed last year, but “far from the same doesn’t mean it’s good for our community.”

She said there is a need for a buffer zone to protect the state wetlands, and the area is a marsh transition zone.

It has been pointed out that much of the land in this area has already been developed, Brown said, “and that’s my point.”

Brown said 39 percent of the original Mendenhall Wetlands has disappeared, and this change would set a precedent where more land could be taken from this area.

Photographer Mark Kelley also testified against any project that could harm the viewshed. “This area will disappear and this view will disappear. As a photographer I can’t stand that.”

The developer’s spokesman noted after public testimony that the developer should be given credit for changing the plan to exclude undisturbed land.

“We’re trying to follow the law” and meet the needs of the community, Walsh told the commission after public comments had ended.

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