Property owners voiced frustration to Petersburg’s planning commission Tuesday in a sometimes contentious and heated meeting lasting over four hours. The commission this month is voting on a recommendation to the borough assembly on a new zoning map for land within the old city limits. Numerous land owners asked for their zoning to remain unchanged, or changed to a more permissive zoning classification.
The new zoning map seeks to implement some of the changes recommended by the borough’s 2016 comprehensive plan. It would also put into use new zoning classifications in a sweeping revision of the borough’s development code approved by the borough assembly in December.
Commissioner Tor Benson, attending by phone, opened the meeting by trying to explain the commission’s approach to the new zoning map.
“We have a received a few requests to leave a particular property’s zoning the way it was,” Benson said. “With the current zoning code changes, allowed uses in each zoning designation are slightly different so we are trying to match the zoning to the current uses of the property, taking into consideration the surrounding uses and the borough’s comprehensive plan. Some comments we received have said that the current changes will lower the value of their property because they reduce the potential uses, which is a valid concern. On the other side of the spectrum is the fact that you may have a house and neighbors allowed to open a sawmill 100 feet from your house, then the value of your house could also be affected. We are trying to find the balance between these two extremes.”
Numerous property owners blasted the proposed changes, the process for approving them and asked for no change in their current zoning.
“Please take no rezoning action that will deprive me of any of my current possible uses under the industrial, industrial tidelands definitions,” said Heather O’Neil. “You would greatly devalue my properties. Your actions would deprive me of future income. These are serious consequences,” said O’Neil.
“I think it was a cart in front of the horse that now you guys are stuck in a really terrible spot because I take it personally,” said Amber Burrell. “I mean my husband and I have spent 3.1 million dollars in assessed value in this town since 2016 and I’m looking at all these things that I had planned and you know what I see? No, no, no, no, no. That is a really, really hard pill for me to swallow.”
“This is going through way too quick and it’s just not good,” said Lars Christensen, adding, “Everybody I talk to is unhappy with this.”
“The reason you have a roomful of people right now is because you didn’t get a hold of us last year,” said Harold Medalen. Everything I’ve heard about it is that we’re going to streamline it, simplify it, allow more uses of the property and we get the code and start reading it and you’ve taken away a lot of our allowable uses.”
Some of the frustration stemmed from confusion over what would and wouldn’t be allowed in the new zoning classifications. Others voiced anger that they weren’t notified of the changes, or that the proposed zoning map should have been released to the public much earlier in the process. Some also sounded like they’d prefer no zoning restrictions on their land.
Under the new map, current uses of a property are grandfathered in and are allowed to continue. But future uses of a property would be impacted by the changes.
Property owners submitted over 30 requested changes to the zoning map and the commission started working through that list, voting some of the requests up or down. But throughout, the commissioners also found themselves defending the new development code finalized in December. Several pointed out the multiple public hearings and community outreach efforts they made before voting on a final recommendation a year ago. The assembly spent a couple months last fall holding public hearings and making additional changes.
“We work off what the people in the community tell us,”commissioner chair Chris Fry told the audience Tuesday. “That’s how we came up with the code that we proposed to the borough assembly.
His comments drew jeers from the crowd. Other commissioners asked the audience members where there were during the public process to approve the code.
Property owner Harold Medalen said he’s followed the issue over the past year.“And the common comments I’ve always heard is we’re streamlining the code, we’re going to increase the allowable uses, it’s going to be less restrictive, simplify it. That’s the constant refrain. I can get you quotes from the newspaper about that from staff,” Medalen said. “But once the map came out and we finally got a letter about it, our existing old code that was put together with a great deal of public input, a great deal of public input, property owners coming in and saying this is how I want my land zoned, that’s being thrown out the window and a much more restrictive code that’s twice as dense, twice as thick, much more confusing and I’ve been through both of them, reading them.”
Medalen said he planned to ask the assembly to rescind the new development code they approved in December. One of the more contentious changes in that new code is a tighter restriction on residential use of some industrial land. The new code has a size limit for a care taker dwelling that can be built on property classified as general industrial and a new category waterfront industrial. That dwelling also has to be a secondary use of the property.
Another property owner Pete Litsheim brought up one recent example. The borough in 2016 denied a conditional use permit to Bill Menish for additional residential dwelling space on his waterfront industrial land just south of downtown.
“At the point where Menish came and decided to build a home or something that looks like a home on industrial land seems like everything hit the fan at that point and a bunch of wrong stuff came out, because that’s all industrial land both on the tide side and the upper side from Petro Marine back to the building the harbor wants now that used to be Union Oil’s,” Litsheim said. “For crying out loud, does precedent count or do you new people that haven’t been around not understand what this community’s really all about?”
Another new classification, called light industrial, would allow some more residential uses.
In between hours of public comment, the commission did vote to approve around 10 requested changes to the proposed map. Two commissioners, Yancy Nilsen and Richard Burke were not at Tuesday’s meeting. The commission has other requests to consider before voting on a final zoning map recommendation to the borough assembly. The assembly can make other changes during three readings of an ordinance expected to start April 1st and finish May 20th.
The borough government is not implementing zoning restrictions on land in the greater borough, outside of service area one.
The commission is scheduled to continue its meeting on the zoning map Tuesday, March 19 at noon.