The Juneau Assembly is poised to grant a local developer more flexibility with his Mendenhall Valley property, over the Juneau Planning Commission’s recommendations and neighborhood residents’ concerns.
If the assembly approves the draft decision on Monday, Richard Harris could use his lot at the corner of Atlin Drive and Mendenhall Loop Road for commercial purposes. Harris purchased the 2-acre parcel from the U.S. Forest Service in 2010. He first applied for it to be zoned light commercial a year later.
“We’re pleased with the decision and we can now look at beginning to plan with more certainty what we may be able to do with the parcel,” said Harris, who’s developed several valley properties through his company, RH Development.
Nearby homeowners say the property should continue to be zoned for residential use, which is the case for most of the surrounding neighborhood. The Juneau Community Development Department and planning commission have agreed, denying three requests by Harris to have the lot rezoned.
Tim Banaszak lives in the neighborhood and is a vocal opponent of Harris’ rezone request.
“Essentially they’re negating all the recommendations of the neighborhood, the planning commission, and all the parties concerned,” Banaszak said of the draft decision before the assembly. “Really the only one in favor is the actual property owner.”
The draft decision says the planning commission failed to consider the “highest and best use” of Harris’ lot. It says the commission did not place any weight on the need for affordable housing in Juneau. Commercial zoning allows higher density housing than residential zoning.
Banaszak says the neighbors are not opposed to additional housing. The problem is that Harris has not revealed what he plans to build on the property. Commercial zoning could mean everything from housing to offices to restaurants, retail stores, even car lots.
“Once the property is converted to light commercial, it opens it up to all kinds of purposes in our residential neighborhood,” Banaszak said.
While Harris won’t reveal specific plans, he says the property is perfect for mixed-use development, which he argues is more compatible with commercial zoning.
“Flat land in Juneau, buildable land is hard to find. And it should be taken advantage of and maximized, not limited and obstructed,” Harris said. “It’s foolish to put a few small homes on a nice flat larger parcel, and especially not alongside a main thoroughfare. It’s common sense to put commercial in a visible area.”
Assembly members reached on Friday declined to comment, because their deliberations on the decision were held in executive session.
City Attorney Amy Mead wrote the draft decision. She expects assembly members to discuss the decision before voting.
The Atlin rezone request is one of several emotionally charged land use appeals to come before the assembly in recent years. If the assembly approves the draft decision, opponents of the new zone would have 30 days to appeal in Juneau Superior Court.
The Juneau Assembly meets at 7 p.m. You can listen live on KTOO-FM.