After the City of Kenai hosted a series of town hall-style meetings on its comprehensive plan update, Kenai’s Planning and Zoning Commission discussed a partial draft of the 2016 comprehensive plan during a worksession meeting on Tuesday.
Kenai’s comprehensive plan — a state requirement that legally justifies the city’s land use decisions — provoked controversy when city government attempted to update it in 2013, resulting in a draft plan rejected by a voter initiative. This year the city council and administration is revising the plan again. Previous public discussions have focused on updates to the plan’s informational chapters, but the core of the discussion and the controversy are the land-use maps which Kenai City Planner Matt Kelley said will inform future zoning decisions.
“The land-use plan is not zoning,” Kelley said. “Zoning is more specific to uses allowed on the property. Land use is more generalities … Sort of in a nutshell, the land-use classification is the long-range planning document which sets up the zoning district, which is the current zoning… (Land-use designations) look out 20, 30 years from now as areas grow.”
Planning and zoning commissioners used Tuesday’s worksession to provide advice to Kelley and consultant Elizabeth Benson of Benson Planning about revisions to the land-use plan. Kelley, Benson and the commissioners discussed the land-use designations from the voter-rejected 2013 comprehensive plan, included in Benson’s draft chapters of the 2016 plan presented at the meeting, and the current land-use map created by the 2003 plan.
Much of the discussion covered what Benson called a “philosophical difference” between different visions of the city: whether to include a “mixed-use” area along the Kenai Spur Highway that could support eventual commercial development.
“What I’ve heard and what I’ve read is that there’s kind of a fundamental discussion here about commercial along the highway,” Benson said. “That’s at the root of this — how much, and where.”
Although distinct, some of Kenai’s zones and land-use designations have identical names — “mixed use” is both the name of a zone and a land-use designation. The 2003 plan states that the mixed-use land-use designation “fosters a compatible mix of retail, service, office, public, institutional recreational, and multi-family residential uses.” In that plan, mixed-use areas were clustered around the commercial and mixed-use zoned areas of Old Town and the Main Street Loop, while the draft 2013 plan created a mixed-use strip in residential zones along much of the Kenai Spur Highway, which critics of the plan described as potential commercial sprawl.
Kenai resident Kristine Schmidt said at Tuesday’s meeting the creation of mixed-use designations — which she said were more associated with commercial than residential zones — in residential-zoned Spur-front properties had sparked the 2013 controversy.
“…What I’ve seen in the 30-plus years I’ve lived here is that people will be using this map to justify whatever proposal they have,” Schmidt said. “So it’s really important that you carefully look at what these things say. When you put commercial use on top of what is currently zoned residential, people are upset by that. They think you want to commercially zone their residential neighborhood.”
Because of the distinction between land use and zoning, a property can be designated with a commercial land use while being zoned and used as residential land. The commercial land-use designation, however, would support a property-owner’s proposal to re-zone the land for commercial use. Planning and zoning commissioner Kenneth Peterson said he would prefer not to create land uses that didn’t match their zones.
“When we look at this new map, we don’t want to call it commercial if it’s residential, because all it’s going to do is fester this thing up again,” Peterson said. “People are going to see it as a common person would see it: ‘You’ve designated my property as commercial, when in fact it’s residential.’”
While the 2003 plan doesn’t include mixed-use designations along the Kenai Spur Highway, it does include strips of “neighborhood commercial,” defined as “suitable for small-scale neighborhood-serving retail, service, and office use.” An idea from Peterson to expand the neighborhood commercial designation in place of mixed use was met with skepticism from Benson and Kelley.
“It would still sort of be the same issue, where a parcel that has a house on it, calling it commercial, residents could get upset,” Kelley said.
“Neighborhood commercial is totally misunderstood,” Benson said. “It’s meant for small, corner shops within neighborhoods. Not meant for commercial as in a chain. That misunderstanding, you’re not going to overcome it. No matter how many ways we write it, we’re not going to overcome it.”
The commission will continue to consider revisions to the land-use map at a future meeting, currently unscheduled.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.