Borough debates changes to local option zone code

Forming a local option zone may soon be easier for residents who want more control over what businesses can move into their neighborhoods.

Local option zones are areas in which the majority of residents have control over what businesses can be established there. The code was last revised about 15 years ago. Since then, six of the areas have been formed. There are currently 14 total local option zones within the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

The requirements for setting up the zones are somewhat cumbersome, though. To get one established, at least three-quarters of residents have to sign a petition requesting that the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly set stronger limitations on land use in a particular area than is stipulated by the borough code. There must be at least 12 lots in the proposed zone, and the requirements for different types of local option zones vary.

The code was identified in the borough’s 2005 comprehensive plan as a target for revision. Members of the public have repeatedly complained about the complexity of the code over the years. The complaints about the code were rehashed in 2014 at a community meeting, spurring the need for a rewrite.

The code was complex and onerous for those seeking to apply, said Max Best, the borough planning director. At the same time, it was mostly being used as a weapon against gravel pits in residential areas.

“Most of the people had no idea what that meant, other than there was going to be no gravel pit,” Best said. 

“I think it was being used as more of a sword than a shield. We decided we would say, ‘Here’s the change. Here’s what it means to you, and here’s what we’re going to govern within that area,’” said Best.

If the proposed changes pass, only one person would need to come in and start the process, outlining the area he or she wants to zone, Best said. From there, the planning department would walk the petitioners through the process and conduct public meetings so the residents are all on track with the staff throughout the process.

“That way, we don’t get down in front of the assembly and the person says, ‘That’s not what I wanted,’” Best said. “We get down in the area and explain.”

The rewrite primarily changes some of the restrictions on hoops the applicants have to jump through. One of the main targets for revision was a complex mathematical formula for addressing large lots brought into the local option zone, which has been simplified, according to a memo from assembly member Brent Johnson, who introduced the ordinance.

The borough assembly has introduced the code rewrite as an ordinance, which will come up for public hearing on Feb. 2. Assembly representative and Lands Committee Chair Stan Welles said the assembly has been concerned that some of the more recent zones have been put together for “punitive” purposes and is still debating options for the rewrite.

“We’ve had a spirited debate on this,” Welles said at the Jan. 5 assembly meeting. “It looks like we’re heading in a direction of being much more user friendly.”

Owners of large lots adjacent to a proposed local option zone may also petition the borough to be included, eliminating the math previously necessary. 

The normal maximum lot size is 5 acres, with a minimum of 40,000 square feet. Only 20 percent of the lot can be covered by structures.

The code increases the number of car trips to a particular parcel from 10 to 20 per day and removes the restriction on noise, vibration and other visible effects. Most businesses in local option zones still cannot use outdoors spaces, but the rewrite lifts that provision for adult or child day-care businesses or preschools. Only one nonresident is allowed to work on-site in any business.

The borough’s Marijuana Task Force has discussed local option zones as a potential method of giving residents control over the presence of marijuana businesses. Some have raised the concern that there will be a rush on local option zones to push out marijuana businesses, but Best said it doesn’t seem likely to him. It’s still a lot of work to get one going, he said.

“We’ve had this local option zone out there for a long time,” Best said. “(Marijuana businesses) could be a catalyst, but I don’t know about a land rush on them.”

The borough assembly will discuss the code revision at its Feb. 2 meeting.

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.