Proposed standards could stifle prospects of new subdivisions

Borough comes to fork in roads

Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2002

The days when speculating developers made an easy buck subdividing property and selling home sites in the Kenai Peninsula Borough while leaving behind an aggravation of muddy, pitted and often impassible neighborhood roads may be gone, but their legacy survives.

Since those days, the borough Road Service Area has adopted stiffer standards. A new ordinance being considered by the borough assembly would go even further to prevent construction of badly built roads.

Ordinance 2001-47 would require developers to build new subdivision roads to borough standards prior to final platting. That rule effectively would preclude the sale of lots until the roads were finished, adding risk and cash-flow headaches to the process of subdividing, according to developers.

Sponsored by assembly member Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge-Seldovia, the ordinance gets a public hearing at tonight's assembly.

The problem, said Martin, is that many of the dedicated rights of way within the borough Road Service Area are so poorly constructed, they're ineligible for borough road maintenance, leaving the jobs of summer upkeep and winter snow removal to homeowners.

Rebuilding those roads to borough maintenance standards, even with the financial help available through an existing service area matching program, is a costly affair. It is a situation that could have been avoided had better standards been in place when those subdivisions were first built, Martin said.

Before being elected to the assembly, Martin served on the Kachemak Bay Advisory Planning Commission, which often dealt with complaints about local roads.

"In the area of roads in particular, there needs to be more work," she said.

Tougher standards adopted in the recent past have helped, she acknowledged, but regulations ensuring that new subdivision roads will be equal to the strains of weather and traffic and that buyers are getting a fair shake when they purchase home sites in the borough still are needed. Such regulations become necessary in any maturing municipality, she said.

"The main thing is that when people come in looking for land, drive on maintained borough or state roads to the edge of a subdivision, it is anticipated that the road to their new prospective home will be maintained," she said. "They have a right to expect that."

Stiffer standards proposed in the ordinance would apply to new subdivision roads within 330 feet of a borough- or state-maintained road unless there is no legal access to the subdivision. This is intended to ensure standard roads are built where maintained roads terminate at the last lot or parcel adjacent to the proposed subdivision. Further, subdivision roads would have to be built if a state- or borough-maintained road existed within an eighth of a mile of the subdivision.

To fall under the provisions of the ordinance, a subdivision would have to contain at least five lots, a proviso aimed at easing the costs on small developers.

Adoption of the road law could have a serious economic impact on subdivision, slowing development and in some cases stopping many from subdividing at all, said Anchor Point property owner and land developer Buzz Kyllonen.

The concern voiced by the road service board that roads won't be built to borough standards without the new subdivision provisions is baseless, Kyllonen said. Since the service area adopted more restrictive road standards in the 1990s, the borough has not accepted any substandard roads, he said. To be sure, the borough now maintains a host of substandard roads that were accepted in the 1980s prior to adoption of the newer road standards, he acknowledged.

"That led to severe problems, but there is not much we can do about that," Kyllonen said.

Developers already face enough economic unknowns when they seek to create a new subdivision. The proposed regulations will make those projects that much tougher. Make them too tough and subdivisions may not be built at all, warned Emmitt Trimble, owner and broker of Coastal Realty in Anchor Point and Homer.

"People will say, 'I won't take the risk and spend significant money before platting,'" he said.

Simply asking developers to add road costs to the price of lots up front is a tactic that can only go so far. If finishing an entire subdivision's roads adds too significantly to the price of the first lots, they won't sell at all, he said.

The proposal, however, includes a provision that recognizes that reality. It permits for phased subdivisions where standard roads are required only for that phase of the subdivision submitted for final plat approval. Trimble said a phased approach would be less onerous, but he's still not satisfied with the proposed ordinance.

Kyllonen said one need only look at the city of Homer to see the effects of costly subdivision standards.

"Homer, because of an ordinance like this, hasn't had a new subdivision since 1984," Kyllonen said.

That's not strictly true, according to city of Homer planning technician Malcolm Brown. Indeed, Homer has seen several small subdivisions created inside city limits since the mid-1980s and is working on some now, he said.

The paucity of activity during the 1980s and early 1990s had less to do with city-imposed road standards than it did with the general malaise in the Alaska economy beginning in 1986 brought on by falling oil prices and a real estate crash that left a glut of lots on the market, Brown said.

Trimble agreed the crash had an impact, but the issue of up-front costs driving up lot prices beyond market acceptability still applies, he said.

Kyllonen and Trimble also agreed that when the borough accepted substandard roads it got a maintenance headache. Trimble acknowledged he was responsible for some of those roads, which he said were adequate for getting people to their lots, but which would not have met the borough standards of today had the standards existed when they were built.

Neither said they think poorly built roads are acceptable and both agreed there is merit in ensuring roads meet minimum standards. But good standards already exist. The risks attending the addition of still more could be counterproductive in the long run.

Another road-related measure on tonight's agenda will have a public hearing.

Ordinance 2002-02 would expand the scope of an existing matching grant program used now to pave borough maintained gravel roads and help pay the cost of bringing unmaintained roads up to gravel. Under the current law, property owners living along eligible roads can apply for a road service area grant to cover up to 25 percent of the cost of an improvement project.

But there's a gaping and costly pothole in that law, said 2002-02 sponsor, assembly member Chris Moss of Homer.

Many of the borough's poorly built gravel roads, especially in the service area's southern and eastern sectors, are the very substandard ones accepted by the borough for maintenance in the 1980s.

Unfortunately, already being on a maintenance list makes them ineligible for matching funds that might be used to help property owners upgrade those roads to approved gravel standards. Moss' ordinance would open that door and could lead property owners to opt for road improvements, ultimately saving the road service area vital maintenance funds.

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