Assembly hears complaints, support on local option zone proposal

The very basics of local option zoning districts came up for debate at Tuesday’s Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.

The assembly has been discussing a rewrite of the local option zoning district code for months and has proposed multiple corrections and amendments. The code governs the formation of local option zones, which are citizen-driven neighborhoods that restrict what types of activities are permitted, such as small home businesses or types of land use.

The borough’s planning department presented a proposed rewrite of the code to simplify the application process and make it more inclusive to the neighborhoods, among other adjustments. It was introduced to the assembly for approval at the Jan. 5 meeting and has gone through several delays, coming up again for public hearing at Tuesday’s meeting.

One of the most controversial elements of the proposed bill was a 500-foot buffer around local option zones for conditional use permits. Several members of the public expressed concerns about the buffer, saying it would allow those seeking to zone the ability to affect others who are not part of the zone.

The most recent substitute removed that buffer along with several other changes. Assembly member Brent Johnson, who proposed the substitute, said it made the code a little more liberal.

One of the changes was to set a maximum amount of property that could be included in the local option zone. In the past, when neighbors wanted to stop a gravel pit from being formed nearby, they could form a local option zone and take in a big piece of property and ban the owner from starting a gravel pit there. The amendment would set a cap of five acres on property size so no person with a large piece of property can be forced into a local option zone, Johnson said.

“This amendment tonight is out to grant the people with the large pieces of the property more liberty,” Johnson said. “I admit the thing has morphed considerably as it has come to us tonight — it is still morphing as we speak — but I have to admit the people that are in the majority in subdivisions should have a way to determine what goes on in their subdivision, in my opinion.”

Some attendees supported the rewrite. Travis Penrod, who successfully formed a local option zone in his neighborhood a little over a year ago, said he would have preferred there to be a buffer zone around a neighborhood so the homes on the perimeter of the neighborhood do not lose the benefits that those in the center have.

“The fence that the guy puts up and there’s a not a 60-foot hole on the other side, there’s not a rock crusher 20 feet on the other side,” Penrod said. “I would say if this new one goes through, some sort of buffer needs to be in there.”

Others objected to the idea entirely. Walter Hickel of Sterling said he opposed the ordinance because people shouldn’t be allowed to tell others what to do with their land but should learn to live with it.

“I always tell people, ‘If you like that view over there, you better buy that lot, or somebody else will and they’ll have that view,’” Hickel said. “… It all comes down to who owns the property. We all have the right in the constitution to the pursuit of happiness. If it makes me happy, I have the constitutional right to pursue it.”

Other attendees took issue with particular provisions of the code. Jeremiah Emmerson of Kachemak City said he opposed the provision that allows any number of property owners within a proposed local option zone to initiate the process. He said he worried that a few neighbors would start the process and cause conflict in a neighborhood.

“I think the most important part of this local option zoning is the way it’s initiated,” Emmerson said. “I think what we’re really doing with this amendment is that we’re making it easier to zone property. I think it should be hard.”

During the assembly discussion, assembly member Stan Welles proposed an amendment specifically aimed at keeping marijuana businesses out of local option zoning districts. The amendment called for another category of zone, called Prohibited Marijuana Establishment District.

“Many people are concerned about marijuana establishments in their neighborhoods, but being good Alaskans, they also do not want zoning,” Welles said. “(The new zone’s) sole purpose is to provide a mechanism for property owners to protect their area from marijuana businesses.”

Several assembly members objected because the ordinance singled out the marijuana industry. Assembly member Kelly Cooper said she would not support it because it was so narrow.

“I can’t sit here and not say how frustrated I am with this group being stereotyped the way it has been for the last year since it’s passed,” Cooper said. “We can’t have it both ways where we can say, ‘I don’t want zoning, but I want to keep you out.’ We can’t do that. And if I sit here and say nothing, I am condoning that continued behavior and treatment of that group.”

The assembly failed the amendment eight-to-one.

The other amendment, proposed by assembly member Gary Knopp, would make the borough a neutral body when a local option zone includes borough-owned property. If a zone would hurt the borough’s interests on its land, the assembly has the ability to vote down the formation of the zone because all local option zones have to be approved by the assembly.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre initially expressed concern about the amendment but later said he was more comfortable with it because the assembly does have final approval. The assembly approved the amendment unanimously.To give the public extra time to review the much-amended code, the assembly voted to postpone any decision on it until its May 3 meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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