Long and winding road laws

Subdivision road ordinance put off

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2007

Writing a law capable of bringing to a close the anything-goes era of road building within the Kenai Peninsula Borough is proving a slow and grinding legislative exercise.

Indeed, roads have been constructed in less time than the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, other borough departments, divisions and boards, as well as members of the general public have spent wrestling with the ramifications of amending two sections of the borough code that ultimately influence road maintenance costs borne by taxpayers.

The current work-in-progress is Ordinance 2007-33 (substitute) introduced Sept. 18. It seeks to amend borough code Title 14 covering streets, sidewalks, roads and trails, as well as Title 20, covering subdivision development rules.

The key element is a provision requiring developers to construct roads within new subdivisions to borough standards, thus making them eligible for maintenance, before the subdivision final plat is approved.

That represents a major change from the past when subdivisions were often approved and new homes built and occupied with little more than a promise that adequate streets would be installed. Many times, they were not.

Today, miles of poorly constructed roads are or hold the potential for putting a financial strain on borough and Road Service Area resources, not to mention the headaches they already cause subdivision residents.

Through the new ordinance, the assembly hopes to put an end to all that by ensuring that new subdivision roads are built to borough standards and certified eligible for borough maintenance by the Road Board within three years of the execution of a subdivision agreement spelling out various requirements and methods of guaranteeing road completion.

The proposed law also would impel developers, among other things, to construct connecting roads linking their developments to maintained borough or state roads within 330 feet (if subdivision is five or more lots). Other provisions cover inspections, testing, and fees, as well as circumstances under which exemptions and waivers that could allow for phasing-in road construction could be granted.

Some developers, including Terry Cowart, of Kenai, oppose the new conditions, arguing that current ordinances are stiff enough.

"This ordinance will require complex administration, is not supported by any studies or documented coverage of events, misleadingly implies a solution for improperly constructed roads, partially duplicates existing ordinances, and targets and penalizes one class of road builders among many classes of builders," he testified. "All this ordinance accomplishes is adding unfunded administrative and maintenance costs to the roads' budget."

The rules, he said, take away a subdivider's choice about when to build roads.

The road-building requirements could impact homesteaders who subsidize their holdings to supplement retirement incomes. Harold Ryden, of Kasilof, said his retirement requires such periodic subdivisions.

"With my retirement, I just can't jump out there and hire someone and tell him to build my roads," he said. "I build them myself. But I can only do so much a year. If I had to build them roads up front, I'm dead in the water."

Brian Olson, a resident of West Poppy Lane in Soldotna, spoke in favor or the new ordinance, and decried the lack road standards enforcement under current law. He said a developer created a new subdivision near him several years ago, promising to punch a new road to the main road, but never did.

"Now we've got 20 or 30 houses of people coming snaking back around through another subdivision to get out to the main road out to West Poppy," he said. "This is a good ordinance for everybody. The money that is spent should be spent by the borough for other causes, not for subsidizing these developers who don't want to follow through on what they say they're going to do."

Assemblywoman Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge, the principal sponsor of the ordinance, said another argument often heard is that requiring well-built roads would drive the cost of lots and homes beyond the means of lower income residents.

"The counter to that is that many of the roads not built to standards do present hazards because they can't always be accessed, especially by emergency vehicles," she said. "And they will (eventually) cost homeowners a lot of money to bring them up to standards."

At its Tuesday meeting, the assembly consumed most of the evening engaged in discussing a host of amendments to the ordinance developed out of recent meetings with Road Service Area Board members, borough planners, developers and other private citizens with an interest in the proposed code revisions. After they passed, Assemblyman Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, moved to postpone further action, saying that the assembly should step back and digest all the changes. Other assembly members agreed and will take the ordinance up again on Dec. 4.

In 2001, the assembly approved an ordinance requiring developers to build subdivision roads to borough standards, but former Borough Mayor Dale Bagley vetoed that measure.

Now it would appear that the lengthy effort to revise the roads and subdivision codes that began in March of this year with Ordinance 2007-11 a version later tabled and replaced by 2007-33 is nearing an end. Martin said she is confident the ordinance will pass.

One proposed amendment that got a lot of vocal support during public testimony would have required developers to bridge anadromous fish-bearing rivers, lakes and streams with road structures and culverts that would not collapse under the weight of traffic. A concern here is the cost of such structures.

The habitat-protective measure got only four votes, however, one short of the five needed for passage. Only eight members were present as Assemblyman Bill Smith, of Homer, had an excused absence.

Though she is in full support of the idea, Martin voted against the amendment, saying Ordinance 2003-33 (substitute) was the wrong vehicle because it would only affect about 20 percent of the plats the borough is likely to see. She said stream protection needed to be addressed in the context of a broader revision of Title 21 (zoning), which covers anadromous streams, among other things.

For more on this issue, see Monday's Peninsula Clarion.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.

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