By Jenny Neyman
The following is a summary of some of the issues of concern between supporters and opponents of the limited commercial rezone in the MAPS area.
Rezoning properties to limited commercial could potentially affect the assessments on those properties.
Anti rezone: “Those people who live and have lived in those homes for years, their home is forcibly being rezoned against their will. That is going to affect assessed values, whether the city acknowledges that or not; it’s a no-brainer. Furthermore it’s going to affect the market value of all adjacent properties,” said Colleen Ward.
Pro rezone: Mayor Pat Porter counters that homeowners have had a say in the matter during public hearings on the rezone process. She said she doesn’t want to speculate whether assessments will change, because it’s a borough matter, but noted that everyone’s property gets reassessed every so often.
“My property taxes got increased once they (borough assessors) went through the area, and there’s no business in the area. You could say that would happen, but it may not happen for 10 years. They don’t come through very often,” Porter said.
There has been concern about whether Magic Avenue, which runs between the fire training center and Wal-Mart, will be pushed through to the MAPS neighborhood, increasing traffic.
Anti rezone: In order to put confusion to rest and neighbors’ minds at ease, the city should vacate part of their easement at the end of Magic, ensuring the road will not be extended, said Mark Schrag. Otherwise, what assurance does the neighborhood have that the city won’t come back and extend Magic later?
“It’s the ultimate ‘trust us.’ Like, ‘Trust us, we’ll take care of this’ kind of thing. They want to keep all their options open on a lot of these things. There’s not any real assurance that they won’t go for more in the future.”
Pro rezone: Porter and City Manager Rick Koch said extending Magic has not been part of the council or city administration’s plan and an extension is not included on any platting maps. Koch said he doe plan to pursue vacating the easement, once the city finishes putting in a park near the new Wal-Mart. However, neighbors should keep in mind that today’s council can’t speak for councils in the future.
“I can’t say what will happen in the future. Any council can change anything, you cannot lock one council into something else,” Porter said.
“It would be wholly inappropriate for a council today to bind another elected council into the future. That’s not right, nor is it consistent with our form of government being representative of the people — not being representative of the people 50 years ago — that it can never change,” he said.
The city council voted on April 1 to approve the rezone, and later amended what the limited commercial zone in MAPS would entail.
Anti rezone: The council should not have approved the rezone without first deciding the specifics of it.
“It was a premature vote. They should have waited on considering the limited commercial rezone (until after it was defined),” Schrag said.
“They wouldn’t wait to see what the new and revised limited commercial zone was going to look like to even know what they were voting on. The revision of the LC was a very troublesome process, in that it bounced back and forth between Planning and Zoning and the council multiple times because they were trying to find a code that worked in east Kenai (near Peninsula Memorial Chapel, which the council also voted to rezone to limited commercial) and MAPS. As overwhelming public testimony from both areas of Kenai reflects, the characteristics of the two areas are not the same, and therefore the zone should not be the same,” Ward said.
Pro rezone: Porter said the timing wasn’t inappropriate, since the council expected to address specifics of the zone before it went into effect, and since the modifications were made to address neighbors’ concerns.
“I think it’s fine the way it was done. I’m not going to nitpick what should have been done and what shouldn’t have been done when. To me, it doesn’t matter if we do it before or after. We knew (modifications) were going to happen anyway.”
One of the goals of the comprehensive plan is to “create an attractive, vital city center … .”
Anti rezone: The rezone contradicts that goal, because it moves development away from the city center, opponents contend.
“Have you looked around to see if there’s a strong city center? It seems to me like trying to make a strong city center is too hard, and something they don’t want to think about or do, or whatever it is,” said MAPS resident Chuck Winegarden. “But spreading down the highway is easy, especially if you have Wal-Mart to kick it off out there. I think they’re doing it because it’s ‘progress’ and easy to do and they focus on the fact that commercial development is economic progress, but so is residential development. … Residential development is economic development, too, and I believe they’ve got this missed concept.”
Pro rezone: Porter said that, five years ago, there were a lot of empty spaces in the city center for development, but that’s not the case anymore. And the empty spaces that are available may not be feasible for development, if owners aren’t willing to sell, or buyers don’t like those options.
“You can’t force businesses to go locate someplace they don’t want to be. You have to give them options or they won’t be here,” she said.
In addition, it is not unusual for commercial development to be spread out, Porter said.
“In Alaska, it’s extremely difficult because people don’t walk from store to store, they drive, and that’s just the way it is up here.”
Sections of the Kenai Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2003, are pointed to by both sides of the issue to support their perspectives. For instance, one of the goals of the plan is to “promote residential and commercial development.” While a section on future development states that, “The city’s land use plan and zoning code and map should promote an orderly overall pattern of land that: … creates a stable, predicable setting for future investment.”
Anti rezone: Changing a portion of the MAPS neighborhood to limited commercial does not provide a predictable setting for future investment, Ward said.
“People want to know, if they’re investing and building their future homes, that there’s some assurances that the zoning would afford predictable growth, and the city comprehensive plan itself states that those documents (the zoning code and land-use map) are in place so that as people make decisions about where they’re making future investments, they can depend on the reliability of this,” Ward said. “I would assume most of us wouldn’t have chosen to live there if we thought we would have been next door to a commercial enterprise.”
The comp plan also states that, “Based on existing residential, commercial and industrial land use patterns, and estimated demand for land for those uses through 2020, the gross supply of privately owned, developable, appropriately zoned sites appears more than adequate for future development needs.”
A land-use plan map (from 2008) lists MAPS as neighborhood residential. Nowhere is it suggested to institute a limited commercial zone in the MAPS area, rezone opponents say. And in a section on commercial land use, the plan notes concern about “commercial development near residential areas as conditional uses or through rezones, particularly along the Kenai Spur Highway. One of the goals of zoning is to achieve stable, livable residential neighborhoods by separating them from incompatible uses. This is best achieved by zoning sufficient, suitably located land for all expected uses, then adhering to the zoning plan.”
The rezone violates those elements of the comp plan, opponents say, which is a significant matter since the comp plan is meant to guide development.
“I’m a defense attorney and I believe totally that people have a right to due process or notice and the right to be heard. If you look at what the courts say, these planning maps are a process for people to come in, they can give their opinions, and they set up these comp plans. These plans are required by state law. The residents did come, they put their opinions in there, and that limited commercial zone does not comply with that plan, and so the people didn’t get their due process and it’s a constitutional violation,” Winegarden said.
“The city says, ‘Well, the comp plan is outdated.’ Fine, then, revise the plan. Don’t let one tie-breaker vote redirect the growth of the city contrary to what Alaska Statutes say the city should be adhering to at this point in time,” Ward said.
Pro rezone: Porter said the comp plan isn’t meant to be unchangeable, if it’s in the best interests of the city to make a change. And the inception of the limited commercial zone went through the public process, with opportunities for community input.
“For me, a plan is a plan. When you have a life plan, things come your way that put a change in it. It’s OK to make changes to your plan with proper public input. It happens all the time, in Kenai and all over the place. These plans are usually updated every 10 years because they’re so expense, so does that mean for 10 years you can’t change the plan?”
Koch said updating the comp plan would cost about $100,000, half paid for by the borough, and half by the city. He said he expects to budget for a plan update next year.
The limited commercial zone is described as being a transition between residential and commercial zones.
Anti rezone: The LC zone doesn’t belong in MAPS because there is no adjacent commercial zone to transition to, neighbors said. The MAPS neighborhood was rural residential 1, surrounded by conservation land and the highway.
“Where is the commercial district? It doesn’t exist. Limited commercial is supposed to transition to commercial from residential. There no commercial surrounding the area to transition to,” Ward said.
Pro rezone: Wal-Mart is a short distance up the highway, in a commercial zone, Porter said. It may not directly border the LC zone, but that’s not unheard of, she said.
“Up and down the Spur Highway you’re going to find that very same issue,” Porter said.
Koch said he considers the highway itself to be commercial, since it functions as a commercial corridor.
Neither side of the issue has had unanimous support.
Anti rezone: The Planning and Zoning Commission voted twice against the rezone, the majority of public testimony given was in opposition to the rezone, the majority of homeowners in MAPS oppose it and they were able to get nearly 600 signatures from Kenai residents to put the measure on the ballot, Ward said.
“I just want a legitimate voice in the development of our neighborhood, and more than being able to go up and testify in front of the council for three minutes,” Schrag said.
“Planning and Zoning pretty much listened to us, they turned down the limited commercial zone every time it was presented to them. As far as the city council, they said, ‘My mind’s made up. Don’t bother me with the facts.’ They would sit and listen, but that didn’t change their mind one bit. The whole point of our testimony in front of council was ‘Don’t do it, period.’ And they didn’t listen,” Winegarden said.
Pro rezone: Porter said Planning and Zoning Commission decisions are advisory to the council, not a binding recommendation, and that P&Z did vote in support of the inception of the limited commercial zone when it came about in 2004-05.
Porter said she realizes the majority of MAPS homeowners oppose the rezone and spoke out about it.
“However, when you’re making decisions based on what is good for the city, you should really be looking at what is best for the city overall. Yes, several people came from the neighborhood, but when I’m out and about I see other neighbors in other areas and they say they think it should be rezoned and it’s about time the city did it. I think it’s your responsibility to listen to them, as well,” Porter said.
One of the arguments over the limited commercial zone is what kinds of businesses would be permitted in it, and whether they would attract students to cross the busy highway, presenting a safety concern.
Pro rezone: Porter said amending the limited commercial zone removed many attractants that could lure students across the highway.
“It would be worse to have apartment buildings around there (as far as students crossing the highway); that is allowed in the zone right now and not in the limited commercial zone. It (crossings) would be worse to have a private home with children in it,” she said.
As it is now, when students are going to Safeway or somewhere in that area, she sees them using the bike path until they get to the stop light at Walker Lane and crossing there.
Anti rezone. The area, with the high school, Challenger Center, Multi-Purpose Facility and sports fields, already has a high density of new drivers and several entry and egress points. Adding reasons for increased traffic, and attracting kids across the highway, would increase the danger, Ward said.
“We do not want to promote additional and unnecessary crossings of the five-lane highway,” she said.
While the council did modify what is allowable in the LC zone, not everyone believes that is the end of the story.
“The council talks about how they modified the LC zone to cut our some of attractions to the high school, but they’ve changed that thing three or four times, and you can’t tell me they won’t change it again. That zone is not fixed. If something comes before the city council that they want in there, they may do it again,” Winegarden said.