From left planning commissioners Dave Kensinger, chair Chris Fry, Richard Burke, Otis Marsh and Sally Dwyer listen to resident Joe Aliberti in borough assembly chambers Tuesday, February 20, 2018. (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The Petersburg borough is in the process of approving new code for development of property in the borough. The planning commission Tuesday held a hearing on new draft language that covers everything from building standards to zoning classifications and subdivision layout.

The new draft code is hundreds of pages long and would replace multiple parts of the borough’s existing law on how people can use their property, what’s allowed and what’s not on various areas of the old city of Petersburg. It also has some impacts on land outside service area one in the new borough. As drafted the code would give the borough authority for land platting borough-wide. That’s the layout of parcels, which can mean minimum lot sizes and requirements for road access and utility connections.

David Griffin, Southeast lands manager for the Alaska Mental Health Trust land office, was in town on other business and had multiple questions about the new code. Griffin said the land office was looking into subdividing some of its land for sale in the area and was concerned about a change in who’s responsible for recording and approving the platted land.

“If I knew that for sure that the borough wouldn’t ask for the platting authority back until July 1st of 2019 then that would allow me to move forward with a couple of projects that I have in the works,” Griffin said. “If not, if I know that that date is fairly firm for 2018, then I would likely hold off on these projects. And just bear in mind that these projects would benefit the borough because they would be some minor subdivisions that would expand the tax base.”

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources currently has platting authority in the borough outside of the old city limits. Another commenter, local surveyor Rick Braun also asked for a firm date for the change in platting authority and didn’t want it to foul up platting work already in process.

The borough’s community development director Liz Cabrera said the assembly would still need to approve a resolution to take over platting authority from the state and did not have a firm date on when that would happen.

The proposed code does not extend zoning outside of the old city limits. It also does not make any changes to the existing land zoning inside service area. But it does create new land classifications that likely will be applied at a later date. That’s a point Cabrera wanted to clarify. “We’re not actually changing, rezoning any property through this process, right?” Cabrera said. “Just so you know what we’re doing is creating the categories that in the future we would move property into. So if this is adopted it doesn’t change anybody’s zoning yet.”

The commission does plan to revisit the zoning map in service area one after the code language is approved and at that time they could be voting to recommend putting property into some of the new classifications.

So what does the new code do? It creates a streamlined process for some non-controversial applications for new construction, leaving those up to staff instead of the planning commission. It also makes changes for what would be allowed in zones in service area one. For instance, accessory dwelling units or tiny houses would be allowed on single family residential land. That’s one change aimed at boosting the amount of affordable housing.

Commissioner Dave Kensinger explained the rewrite was an attempt to make things easier for people looking to develop property. “One of the examples is they put in standards for modular homes so you can put modular homes on residential lots,” Kensinger said. “And basically what it’s done is, if you take a look at it, it’s gone through and cleared a lot of things up, a lot of inconsistencies that has existed in the code in the past that have caused a lot of problems and confusion.”

The proposed code also would create three types of industrial land, light, general and waterfront industrial. And it would streamline the approval for small in-home businesses. It also covers topics like set-back on lots, building standards, requirements for signs, walls, fences and parking. A number of the components are recommendation from the borough’s 2016 comprehensive plan.

The meeting was billed as a public hearing but it turned into more of a question and answer session for residents and property owners to learn about the new code language. Understandably, not many had started reading the hundreds of pages of new code language. The planning commission has been drafting it for about a year but put the full document out for public review this winter. They’re hoping to make a final recommendation on it in March.

Some of the comments came from property owners who have had difficulty with existing zoning. Mike Etcher wanted to make sure Lyons Road remained an industrial area and told of the difficulty of finding a place for an auto repair shop.

“We looked for over a year for a place to build the shop that Etch’s Auto is in now because no place would allow it in Petersburg, none of the lots up by Hammers, Twelfth (Street), all over town we looked and we even had (borough building official Joe Bertagnoli) even trying and he said there just wasn’t,” Etcher said. “So that’s when we decided to build on our commercial industrial lot between there and it worked out much better. We had a lot more land and room.”

Commissioner Kensinger responded the borough is hoping to find more opportunities for industrial development. “But what we’re trying not to do is not trying to put industrial developments right next to residential subdivisions,” he said. “And that’s kind of where that I’ve seen in my limited time on the planning and zoning commission where a lot of the issues come up is when you have people that are living in an area where their neighbor is basically doing an industrial activity.”

Along those lines, Joe Aliberti wanted to see residential land protected for that use and not permitted for fishing gear or boat storage. “When you zone it residential the number one purpose of that area is for residences,” Aliberti said. “That should be the primary use of that property.”

Aliberti has argued against allowing gear and equipment in a residential neighborhood in the Olsen subdivision south of downtown.

The borough has produced some one page summaries of the new code and the changes it will mean on the borough’s website. The entire document is available for download there too, with hard copies available at the library or the borough offices.

The planning commission is still making changes and plans to vote on a list of amendments a meeting March 6th at noon. They’re also expected to vote on the entire document and that will be their final recommendation to the borough assembly. That group will consider the proposed language in three readings of an ordinance this spring.