A standing room-only audience stayed in the Assembly Chambers more than four hours Tuesday night as the Juneau Planning Commission heard public comment and debated a pair of contested rezoning applications. In the end, both items were shelved for later meetings.
The first item on the docket was an application that would allow the building that currently houses the Auke Bay post office to add seven apartments to the vacant middle portion of the building, while also allowing developers in the future to expand the building up to 55 feet tall.
A small portion of land across Glacier Highway adjacent to the post office would also be rezoned to the more development-flexible general commercial category to make the application legitimate due to the post office building’s small size.
The current zoning is waterfront commercial, meaning development generally has to be for marine-related uses.
“We’re talking about big changes to the community in an area the community places a lot of value, and I think it’s worthy of our time to think of what’s appropriate for this area in a community decision,” said Planning Commissioner Nathan Bishop, who helped lead the effort to delay a vote.
Lacking the votes to approve recommending the zone change to the Juneau Assembly, the commission opted to table the discussion until January when more input from the community can be gathered.
The commission approved a rezone application for a tract of land between Glacier Highway and Abby Way near Vanderbilt Hill Road that allows for higher density housing development in an area previously reserved for larger lots.
Planning commission rezoning decisions are forwarded to the Assembly as recommendations for action, but the Assembly has the final say.
The majority of the crowd in the building was waiting for the topic discussed next — a rezone application that would allow for industrial construction near the airport on land that opponents to the application referred to as the Field of Fireweed.
At least 50 members of the public attended the meeting to oppose the efforts of Bicknell, Inc., to rezone and ultimately develop the land. There have been, and currently are, efforts to purchase the land from the company to secure its long-term function as a natural relief for Juneauites and visitors. However, to date the company and prospective buyers have not agreed on a price — a fact that many opponents pointed to when asking the commission to reject the application.
“If you give Bicknell this zoning change, you’ll likely allow them to price this property beyond the local community’s ability to buy it,” said Juneau resident Mark Kelley.
Kelley told the committee about how his Facebook post about the possible rezone generated feedback from several friends who had visited Juneau and didn’t believe the iconic view should be altered in any way.
“If you approve this land rezoning and the bulldozes start rolling, this view will be lost forever,” Kelley said. “I just can’t stand the thought, it’s just not right, it hurts my soul.”
Forty-seven of the rezone opponents wore placards with a picture of the field adorned with colorful flowers and the words “Field of Fireweed” emblazoned across the top. Supporters had reasons including desires to purchase the land, not wanting to lose the iconic viewshed and wanting to preserve the wetlands habitat, among others.
“These minor changes become major changes in very short order to the primary reason many of us live here, and that is the wildness of the place,” said John Lyman, a 15-year veteran of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Still, Daniel Bruce, the lawyer representing Bicknell, Inc., argued at the meeting the land is privately owned and making a decision for public use could be construed as illegal.
“Denial of rights for public purposes is taking in the constitutional sense,” he said.
Bruce added that doing so could result in the property owner suing the city for the highest invested value of the land.
Because there was such an outpouring of public comment on the rezoning request, the commission opted to postpone voting on the application until its next regular meeting Dec. 10.
Beverly Agler, a fisheries biologist who regularly visits the wetlands, cautioned the commissioners to think long term when the roll is ultimately called.
“You never get it back,” she said of destroyed wetlands. “The best thing you can do is not take it away in the first place if you realize you’re going to want it.”