The Petersburg borough is looking into making changes to local law on zoning and subdivisions. Some of the changes could streamline the review process for borough approval of new buildings or property improvements within the old city limits. Borough officials also want to take over approval of subdivision layout in the newly expanded municipality.

The borough’s community development director Liz Cabrera explained to the assembly this month it was time to update local law on zoning and subdivisions. She said an overarching goal was to simplify review and approval process and she outlined other aims of the code rewrite.

“Allow sufficient time and structure for really complex important decisions and push really minor ones to kind of a faster administrative process,” Cabrera said. “To allow for a greater range intensity of uses especially in some residential areas but still have some standards so that we’re not having a negative impact on established neighborhoods. And then trying to work on trying to implement some of the goals from the comprehensive plan.”

Municipal code on zoning and subdivisions has been in place since 1985 without a wide-ranging update. Since then the borough has twice updated a comprehensive plan for the community and has also expanded into a borough, beyond the limits of the old city of Petersburg.

Cabrera also got into some of the specifics of what updated borough code would look like. One idea is code language to maintain the existing characteristics of downtown Petersburg, with covered sidewalks, and businesses fronting right on the sidewalk.

Cabrera said the borough was looking into allowing a secondary accessory home, like a cottage, next to someone’s primary home in a residential neighborhood. That’s something not allowed in the current code.

Another aim was to eliminate the requirement for one meeting of the planning commission to schedule a zoning request and a second meeting to consider an application. She explained how the process could be streamlined for some kinds of applications that don’t meet resistance from the neighbors.

“So staff would accept applications, send out notices to the neighbors,” Cabrera said. “If nobody has a problem we’ll go ahead and sign off on it if it meets the code. If there’s neighborhood concern, we just kick it to the planning commission and let them do their process.”

Some of the code rewrite could expand the borough’s authority outside of the old city limits, or service area one. Specifically Cabrera explained the borough wanted to have authority over subdivisions of private land.

“So we don’t really have currently a way of dealing with remote subdivisions. We also don’t have minimum lot sizes for areas without access to sewer and the code is really unclear as to when public improvements are required. The standards are out of date or non-existent. The current code really can’t deal with outside of service area one right now the way it’s written. It doesn’t really apply or make sense for the folks out there.”

That platting authority outside of the old city limits remains with the state of Alaska. That’s the decision making on lot sizes, rights of way and other land lay-out issues. It’s not the same as zoning authority, which is approval for how a land owner can use their land. And Cabrera said the code rewrite is not looking to expand zoning authority.

Proposed code would allow four types of subdivisions with different levels of approval required based on subdivision size or location. Two of the proposed categories of subdivision would have an expedited approval process.

Borough assembly member Bob Lynn questioned Cabrera about taking on that platting authority. “From what I’m hearing from people outside of town I only heard one person wants more rules,” Lynn said. “I think if you’re gonna look at subdivisions we should be looking at the bigger subdivision not down to the single lot. That’s my view on it.”

Cabrera responded that there were reasons for the borough to take over this authority from the state. She pointed to a recent example where the borough objected to small lot sizes planned for a Mental Health Trust land nine miles south of town. “I don’t think we wanna get heavy handed I really don’t,” she responded. “I don’t think there’s any reason to. But I do think we have an interest in making sure that people can buy good lots and build a house and contribute to the tax base. I think that should be one of our chief concerns. I don’t think we allow that authority and responsibility and abdicate that to the state especially when we have agencies that their primary interest is not the same as our interest.”

Cabrera also said the borough’s approval process is cheaper than the state’s, giving land owners a chance to save money if the borough was to take over that authority.

The code revision is still being drafted and hasn’t yet made it to the assembly in draft form.
Cabrera expected the planning commission would do a formal review and at least two hearings on the changes before sending on the recommendations to the borough assembly. That could happen sometime later this year.