Petersburg’s planning commission this week talked about allowing more flexibility for land use under the borough’s newly approved development code. Property owners have sought allowances for continued residential use of land zoned for industry. Some are also questioning what types of affordable housing will be allowed on residential property under the new code.
The borough assembly approved the new development code in December. However, many property owners didn’t know about some of the changes it will bring until the borough started its review of a new zoning map for Petersburg. That’s when property owners found their land could be changing its classification, or there would be new restrictions for some categories.
Business and property owner John Murgas asked the planning commission for more flexibility.
“Economic conditions in Petersburg are changing as rapidly as the climate,” Murgas said. “None of us know exactly what the future holds. Please realize industrial property owners need a lot of latitude.”
The new code is more restrictive for residential use of some industrial property. But it also creates a new kind of light industrial land that is more permissive for homes and limits some heavy industrial uses. Some property owners have been unhappy with the change and asked for little or no restriction for how they can use their land.
At a meeting Tuesday, commissioners explained some of their thinking in drafting the new code.
“If you have a hotel right next to somebody that has a sawmill, it’s a prescription for a lot of conflicts,” said commissioner Dave Kensinger. “And as a commissioner over the five years I’ve been on planning and zoning. That’s been the majority of the things, outside of small variances, that we’ve had to deal with, which is somebody having industrial use right next to somebody’s residence.”
Commissioners also said they heard from the community about the lack of industrial land in town.
“Our big concern that was brought up in the discussions we had writing the code was the fact that there was concern of people taking industrial property and making it by default residential by building a house on it and then not having any industrial use,” said commission chair Chris Fry. “So I think what we are kind of are looking at here is wanting to be able to keep some commercial/industrial use.”
Commissioners sounded agreeable to switching back to the existing code language that would allow many residential uses of industrial land but require a conditional use permit. That provides a chance for neighbors to object and the commission to set standards for that use. This change could also keep the current language in the new code for a size limited care taker dwelling without such a permit.
“Comments were that we don’t have enough industrial lots here and so yeah if someone wants to use it as a care taker dwelling then they’re welcome to do that but if they do want to build a house then we’d basically remind them of the purpose of industrial is, we need industrial lots here for people that want to do industry,” said commissioner Tor Benson.
Many of the changes in the new code are the result of a new comprehensive plan adopted in 2016. Harold Medalen was on the planning commission when it drafted the existing code in 1985. He explained that some of the areas of mixed use were around before that zoning effort.
“The residential use of industrial is not a bug it’s a feature that was part of the original ’84 comprehensive plan,” Medalen said. “And the people in Scow Bay who had been annexed against their will into the town of Petersburg were concerned about, they were concerned about being able to use their property as they use it, there was a lot of mixed use out there then. And where you see a lot of those residential uses in Scow Bay, preexist zoning at all. So it’s not like they bought the property to build a house on it.”
Medalen thought it was a mistake to create three types of industrial land instead of one. He also pointed out other problems he sees in the new code. For instance, he wanted the language to be clearer that grandfathered structures could be rebuilt if damaged in a fire or other disaster. Commissioners noted those and agreed to consider changes.
Some of the discussion also focused on another change in the new code that will allow manufactured homes, formerly called mobile homes, on all residential property. Commissioners said the intent of that change was to create more affordable housing options. Local homeowner Kathi Riemer told the commission that these homes lose value over time and can drive down neighboring property values.
“Like many Petersburg home and property owner I have, my greatest investment is in my home,” Riemer said. “I don’t think it’s right that the borough should put a standard in place that has the potential of reducing the value of my property.”
Riemer also wanted a system in place to require notification for neighboring property owners if a manufactured home was planned. To that end, commissioners suggested a conditional use permit requirement for this use as well. However, community development director Liz Cabrera cautioned that such a permit wouldn’t necessarily be a means for stopping a manufactured home going up nearby. She urged the commission to look at the criteria for granting such a permit.
“You should look at those criteria and when you apply them to this kind of case where you’re really doing a residential use into a residential use,” Cabrera said. “It lends itself to always granting that conditional use permit and what you’re really trying to do with conditional use is mitigate impacts. So I think you’re going to be hard pressed to find those negative impacts when it’s residential into residential. So is that really the best tool or do we need to add something into that toolbox for you if you really want to be able address that issue.”
The code requires certain local building standards for putting a manufactured home on single family residential property.
The commission didn’t take any votes Tuesday. They expect that to happen during a meeting in May. But first commissioners have asked staff to draft proposed changes to the new code and want to review those changes in April while gathering public input. They’ll eventually be making a recommendation to the borough assembly to change the code. This discussion also gives more time for land owners to review the borough’s proposed zoning map and request changes in writing.