The Juneau Planning Commission last week reaffirmed its decision to allow a state storage building to be constructed in a Lemon Creek industrial zone. But a losing bidder on the project said the decision raises the question of whether the commission takes too much liberty with existing zoning ordinances.
Earlier this month the Juneau Assembly directed the Planning Commission to revisit its decision to allow a Bureau of Vital Statistics building in an industrial zone on Commercial Boulevard.
In January, the Planning Commission's board of adjustment voted to consider the bureau's building a "miscellaneous public facility," similar in purpose and character to a post office. A post office is allowed in industrial zones under the city's table of permissible uses.
Department of Community Development staff found the bureau's structure, which is under construction, is a public building and used for sorting, storing and transmitting documents and records, and so could be considered most like a post office.
Developer Larry Bauer, who was a losing bidder for the state project, appealed the Planning Commission's decision to the Assembly. The Assembly said there was insufficient evidence to support putting the building in an industrial zone and sent the issue back to the Planning Commission.
"Our concern is that this basis is not supported by substantial evidence about the similarity between a post office and a (Bureau of Vital Statistics) facility," said the Assembly's written decision. "The only evidence in the record is anecdotal observations of commissioners. Such observations, while often admissible as 'official notice,' are rarely enough by themselves to support a decision, especially where, as here, they appear to be too eager to accommodate the developer."
The Planning Commission on Wednesday upheld its original findings and provided supporting documents for the record. But Bauer testified allowing construction to continue because the building is like a post office set a bad precedent.
"If I wanted to build a post office in the Vintage Business Park would you let me?" said Bauer. "Allowing a use that doesn't fit the zoning you have set forth ... is going to be opening up other doors. Maybe it's time you revisit the existing zoning you have."
Developer Dirk Lovig, who holds the contract to construct the bureau's building, argued it could be considered industrial although that type of building is not listed specifically in the table of permissible uses.
"The table of permissible uses allows for more than forklifts and people in Carhartts and greasy coveralls," Lovig said at the meeting. "It allows for bars, nightclubs, single family dwellings ... It would be absolutely impossible for the (table) to list every single solitary use you could ever come up with. ... The code allows you to make an interpretation based on similar characteristics."
Community Development Director Dale Pernula said interpretation of ordinances is necessary in Juneau given the lack of available space for industrial and commercial uses. He said the department intends to work on solving the problem.
"One of my highest priorities is to identify land in Juneau that can be used for these purposes and try to find a strategy for developing it," said Pernula. "This is not an exact science. It's basically an educated decision. That's why we have a nine-member board, which acts with the values of the community in mind, making these decisions."
Melanie Plenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.