What began last fall as a Kenai dentist's wish to have his own building for the dental practice on vacant land across from Kenai Central High School rapidly burgeoned into a controversy pitting several neighborhood residents against city leaders.
The 2.97-acre parcel Dr. Todd Wortham bought, however, was zoned Rural Residential 1, a zone that does not permit professional buildings without a conditional use permit. Wortham asked that the land be rezoned to the city's relatively new Limited Commercial designation.
Residents in the MAPS Subdivision surrounding Wortham's land were opposed.
Already incensed when the land was clear-cut purportedly to enhance its salability, the neighbors feared any change in zoning would lead to increased traffic and noise disturbing their tranquil, residential community.
When the rezone issue came before the Kenai City Council, the neighbors rallied to express their opposition, many citing a 1996 Alaska Supreme Court case -- Griswold vs. City of Homer -- which ruled that spot zoning is illegal.
Whether or not rezoning the Wortham parcel would constitute spot zoning in the eyes of the court, the city chose instead to apply to rezone more than a dozen parcels, including Wortham's, north of the Kenai Spur Highway between McCollum Drive and a creek that crosses under the highway near the city of Kenai signboard.
The city's application to rezone 14 parcels along the highway corridor to Limited Commercial infuriated the neighbors even more.
Although the rezone proposal has moved considerably beyond Wortham's initial request, seemingly taking on a life of its own, the dentist still wants to move his practice from leased space in the Trading Bay Center across from the Kenai Courthouse to a brand-new building he'd like to build on his own land.
A site plan originally submitted to the city showed five professional buildings on Wortham's parcel, but he said Thursday "the first design was just to see what could go on the property."
The latest site plan shows only one professional building near the corner of the Spur Highway and Cinderella Street. The building would house his practice and possibly a dental specialist such as a pediatric dentist.
The front of his property also would have room for another professional building, possibly for a chiropractor, he said.
When Wortham canvassed the neighbors, he mentioned the possibility of including a playground at the back of the parcel for neighborhood youngsters.
"The liabilities associated with me owning a playground would be unlimited," he said he learned from his attorney.
Because he continues to keep the community's interests in mind, he said it might be the most beneficial from a tax standpoint for him to donate the back portion of the property to the neighborhood residents for them to develop a community playground.
When the residents first voiced their opposition to the rezone, many said they did not want such things as massage parlors, restaurants and boarding houses in their neighborhood.
Restaurants, massage-therapist businesses, dormitories and boarding houses are allowed in the Limited Commercial zone.
City Planner Marilyn Kebschull recently mailed a letter to people involved in the rezoning discussions saying proposed amendments to the land use table are being considered, which would change those enterprises and others in the Personal Services caption from permitted uses to uses requiring conditional use permits.
Wortham said he feels more comfortable seeing the city address some of the concerns of the neighborhood.
"Even I didn't want to see a restaurant next to my (dental) practice," Wortham said.
Although the building footprint for principal permitted uses in the Limited Commercial zone may not exceed 3,000 square feet, the dental office Wortham is planning would be 4,500 square feet. It would require him to request a variance.
Wortham's current dental office, which has been open nearly nine years, is about the same size, he said.
"When we first started (considering a new office), we were looking at being out of this building by August," he said. "Now I have a little more time."
He would like to get the groundwork completed during the coming construction season and get the shell of the building finished so interior work can be done over next winter.
Though he said several residents in the MAPS Subdivision have said they would like to see a dental office there, he also has heard some people suggest he look somewhere else to build. He has combed the Kenai area quite thoroughly, and in hindsight, says he passed up some properties he feels he might have been wise to grab, including the former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant on the Spur Highway.
"I want to keep my practice in Kenai," he said. "I really think I'd make a good neighbor."
The city council is expected to introduce the rezone March 18 with a public hearing scheduled for April 1.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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