Council postpones vote on zoning change

Posted: Friday, May 20, 2011

Kenai's City Council voted Wednesday to postpone a decision on an ordinance that would change the allowed land uses in two neighborhoods. Instead, they sent it back to the Planning and Zoning Commission for work, and asked city administration to notify all Kenai property owners of the upcoming changes.

The postponement passed, with Councilman Joe Moore voting against it, and the rest of the council voting in favor of postponement.

The amended ordinance delays the council from voting on the issue until Aug. 17. In the meantime, it asks planning and zoning to hold work sessions and a public hearing on the proposed changes, which would prohibit many conditionally-allowed land uses.

The council also agreed to have a work session on Aug. 15 to discuss the commission's recommendations at that point.

The council heard nearly an hour of testimony from affected residents, members of the city's planning and zoning commission, and other interested parties before voting on the ordinance.

Commissioners said they appreciated the work the neighbors had done, but wanted to consider the city's land use table for all zones as part of the comprehensive plan process. Councilman Terry Bookey also told the council that the commission had adjusted their schedule to consider land use issues in the planning process at its June 8 meeting, rather than waiting until later in the game.

Commissioner Karen Koester said the city needed to look at the changes for the whole city, not one neighborhood at a time.

"It's throughout the whole city," she said. "It's not just two subdivisions."

But residents of those two neighborhoods -- MAPS and Three W's, both of which intersect with the Kenai Spur Highway -- spoke in favor of their proposed changes. They noted the work that had gone into their draft of the land use table and efforts to contact neighbors, and highlighted the history of the issue.

One long-time landowner showed up to testify who wasn't a long-time resident.

Greg Jones spoke on behalf of the Alaska Mental Health Trust, which owns lands and manages them (and an endowment) for the benefit of mental health issues in Alaska.

Jones said the trust owns subsurface rights, unlike many property owners, and it appeared that the changes would effectively take away those rights. He also spoke to the importance of looking at land uses city-wide.

"You get it out of synch, you torpedo your planning process," he said.

MAPS resident Janine Espy said she wanted the neighbors to have a chance to work with the Mental Health Trust on their issues, as the neighbors had been told in 2009 that the trust stayed neutral on these sorts of issues.

She also spoke to many of the same themes as other neighbors, and noted that people live in their neighborhoods because they like the rural character.

"With my husband working in Norway, we could live anywhere in the world," she said.

Patricia Falkenberg, who has helped canvass the area to gauge support for the changes, said she has seen a positive response from her neighbors and she wanted to see the issue resolved fairly for the neighborhoods. She said the ultimate result of the ordinance -- to ensure the neighborhoods zoned as Rural Residential 1 maintain a quiet, rural feel by preventing noncompatible uses -- was not a new goal in either area.

"Our position has pretty much stayed the same since 1985," she said. "We want our residential areas to stay residential."

Commissioner Jeff Twait said planning and zoning wanted to continue working with residents on the land uses.

"Our position is to move forward and work with the public on this," he said.

Councilman Bob Molloy, who brought forth both the original ordinance and the amendment to postpone it, said he thought planning and zoning had a productive work session on it and wanted to see the discussion continue. The timeline would provide benchmarks in time to gauge progress, he said.

Councilman Brian Gabriel agreed that the commission had a good dialogue on the land use issues, and wanted to see the discussion apply to all neighborhoods.

"This isn't just exclusive to MAPS and Three W's," he said.

Moore, who has said previously that he thought the council's process in handling the ordinance was inappropriate, said he didn't want to see the city piece-meal together its land use policies.

"This is just a bad precedent, bad government and in the end nobody's going to be happy," he said.

Councilman Mike Boyle said he was concerned with the time already spent on the process, and wanted to help the neighbors see the issue resolved. Stacking it with the comprehensive plan after two years of discussion from the neighborhoods was an injustice, he said.

"Those in the MAPS subdivision, I applaud your tenacity," he said.

Councilman Ryan Marquis supported postponing the ordinance. He also responded to the concerns of the mental health trust, and said he wanted to see their land issues explored before making a decision.

"I made pause when I heard the comments tonight about taking of property," he said.

After all was said and done, concerned parties testified that their voices had not fully been heard.

Commissioner Tim Navarre said the council had overstepped its bounds by setting a timeline rather than giving the commission a chance to do its job at their own pace.

"You have just micromanaged the planning commission," he told the council at the end of the meeting.

He said there could be confusion between the efforts of the commission's work on the comp plan and the ordinance and that the council was giving them a difficult timeline when they have other work to accomplish.

"You've just taken away their summer," Navarre said.

Mayor Pat Porter suggested that the commission bring their own proposed timeline to the council at the next meeting.

Molloy said the council would certainly entertain a request for more time. He couldn't speak for every councilor's vote, he said, but a motion would be brought forward if the commission wanted more time.

After hearing Navarre's testimony, Moore asked the council to reconsider. City Attorney Krista Stearns said that as a procedural matter, he could not ask for reconsideration because he voted against the matter originally. Only those voting in the affirmative can ask for reconsideration, she said.

Mark Schrag, a MAPS resident, spoke up during the meeting and said he supported the ordinance but not postponement.

At the end of the meeting, he told the council he was disappointed.

"It feels like residents are treated like second class citizens," he said.

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