Should there be zoning throughout Petersburg’s new borough? What are some of the biggest needs for land in the downtown area? Those were a few of the topics debated by Petersburg’s planning and zoning commission this month as it poured through a draft comprehensive plan for the community. The document makes recommendations for land use and public facilities.
The biggest difference between this planning process and the one completed by the city of Petersburg back in 2000 is the size of the municipality. The new borough is about 83 times the size of the former city with most of the land part of the Tongass National Forest. The borough’s draft comprehensive plan recommends establishing subdivision authority and adopting a generalized land use map for the greater borough area. It doesn’t mean zoning yet for private land in the more remote parts of the borough, but it lays the foundation for greater control about what gets built and where.

Planning and zoning commissioner Otis Marsh said he was concerned with any plans to extend zoning outside the limits of the old city of Petersburg. “I guess I think zoning is important but I also think the city made a promise they wouldn’t zone, where the land is owned, well, outside of the city,” Marsh said. “I don’t know if it’s possible to have zoning on the land that is not yet in private ownership.”

Zoning sets allowable uses in various areas, generally residential, commercial or industrial. And it sets up a process making changes to those designations, or doing something on a property that’s zoned for a different use.
Commission chair Chris Fry pointed out the plan didn’t implement zoning borough-wide. “So what this is just kinda this is the way we see property being used right now. In the future, it’s going to have to go through a whole procedure, including a lot of public comment and hearings and everything else before that can be made into zoning. So it’s not saying there’s going to be any regulation at this time.”
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The city of Kupreanof is in charge of planning and zoning within that city’s limits. So the start up of zoning elsewhere would impact land owners on Mitkof Island other remote parcels outside Kupreanof and service area one on Mitkof Island.

Commissioner Dave Kensinger, who owns remote parcels in the borough, took exception with Marsh’s comment. “I was heavily involved with the whole process of formation of the borough and there was no implicit promise that I found anywhere, by any city official in the entire process that the property would never be zoned at any point in the future. I think what they said was the intent was they were not going to zone immediately. That was the intent of this document.”

Kensigner thought zoning would be needed in the future, especially with more people building remote homes. “The problem that I see going forward in the borough is that as more people move in out there, invariably there’s going to be conflicts on land use out there. There’s multi-thousand dollar homes that are being built out there right now and I guarantee you somebody at some point in the future is not going to want somebody to put in a wrecking yard, right next door to them.”

The commission agreed that zoning borough-wide could come at a later time but would involve a public process.

As for specific zoning where there already is zoning, in service area one, commissioners talked about shortcomings in available land identified in the plan. One shortcoming was in land for multi-family housing near downtown Petersburg.

“The biggest thing we noted in there was the fact that a lot of the multi-family housing, what is in good quality, is full,” said commission chair Chris Fry. “And the stuff that is available is not in the best condition.”

Others noted a real need for land to store commercial fishing gear. And commissioner Tom Stearns thought the borough lacked commercial property. “If you wanna go into business, you wanna bring people into town, we don’t have anything to offer,” Stearns said. “And I don’t know how our community is gonna get out and we’re gonna develop more, unless we provide some place for a business or some land that’s zoned right for businesses to expand. And we don’t have it.”

The draft comprehensive plan recommends some specific changes to zoning in downtown Petersburg, and some new zoning classifications along the waterfront. One audience member Paul Lutomski urged the commission to stay away from areas of mixed zoning that can create problems. “People wanna have their kids out playing in the street and next door someone wants to be welding and not at a hobby rate but a commercial business, that’s two different things,” Lutomski said. “So I think it just causes a lot of friction and heartache in the community, between the residents, the business owners, more stress on the police who then have to regulate it.”

The comment initially prompted a knowing laugh from the commissioners, who do spend a good deal of the commission’s time deciding on problems in Petersburg’s existing zoning, along with requests for conditional uses or zoning changes.

Kensinger thought the problems came about from a lack of zoning in the first place. “Areas were zoned after the fact and not before the fact and that’s my only reason and my only observation on the comprehensive plan and why I think it’s important to move forward so we can not have these problems 20-30 years down the line.”

Community development director Liz Cabrera urged the commission head off potential problems. “So it’s all well and good to say come on in and we’ll re-zone property for you however you want but if that’s gonna cause problems down the road I think it’s important for the commission to be willing to stand up and say we see this as a potential problem where we’re gonna have industrial against residential and the answers gonna have to be no.”

The plan also recommends the borough have a development advocate, to help private land owners with projects, including permitting assistance and wetlands mitigation lands. It also recommends looking into extending electrical power to remote subdivisions. The commission has not yet approved the document but plans to hold more discussions on the plan this winter.