Planning Commission to dig into Juneau Comprehensive Plan update

By February 19, 2013Local Government

The Juneau Planning Commission begins work on a draft update of the city and borough’s Comprehensive Plan tonight (Tuesday).

The document is meant as a policy guide for such things as municipal land use, economic development, transportation, and infrastructure.

The commission has been working on bits and pieces of the overhaul for nearly a year and half, but this will be its first chance to dig in to the whole thing. The plan will eventually go the Juneau Assembly for adoption.

At more than 300 pages, spread over 18 chapters, and largely written in technical style, the Comprehensive Plan is not the easiest document to read.

But to get a sense of it, City Planner Ben Lyman recommends starting with Chapter 3, titled “Community Form.”

“It talks about how there are multiple types of development that are appropriate within the city and borough,” Lyman says. “How there’s a need for some more urbanized areas. There are other areas where more rural type of development or no development at all are appropriate, and recognizing that our community really needs all of that to be healthy and meet the needs of the entire community.”

The state requires certain municipalities to have a comp plan in order to exercise local planning and zoning authority. The document is periodically re-written to stay current with things like the latest development and economic trends, as well as changing public attitudes.

Juneau’s plan was last updated in 2008. Lyman says this new version was initially supposed to be a “technical update.” But as the Planning Commission began digging into it, more and more new information got incorporated into the draft.

“There was a new U.S. Census. We had some new economic reports, a new housing needs assessment, some new transit development and non-motorized transportation plans,” says Lyman. “As well as new infrastructure development – Thunder Mountain High School was online. So we wanted to recognize that those things had been accomplished, and check them off the list of things to do in our Comprehensive Plan.”

Planning Commission Chair Mike Satre admits the rewrite is more extensive than the panel envisioned when it started the process.

“But it’s generated by a process we started a year, year and half ago,” Satre says. “Where we went through each chapter on a page by page basis.”

Satre says it would be impossible to enumerate all of the changes, but some sections were significantly overhauled by the commission. For example, in recent years density limits in many parts of the borough have increased in response to the need for more affordable housing.

“So we ended up doing some significant re-writes to the affordable housing chapter,” says Satre. “There’s some re-writes to the energy chapter, there’s some significant re-writes to the economic development chapter.”

Over the past month, Lyman has been collecting public comments on the re-write. He says one issue that’s garnered a lot of feedback is a new section dealing with cell phone towers. Federal law restricts how much the city can regulate telecommunications equipment, and the draft plan calls for development of a local wireless master plan.

Lyman says the language of the wireless section is by no means perfect, and he welcomes public input.

“This is a draft document at this point,” he says. “And although we’d like to move forward with adopting in the near future, we need to make sure we’re adopting an appropriate plan and not something that will lead the community down the wrong path, especially on things like wireless communications that are so contentious in our community.”

After the initial review of all the changes at tonight’s work session, Satre says the Planning Commission will hold meetings and take more public comment on individual sections. He says the commission does not have a timeline for when a recommendation will go to the Assembly.

The plan will be subject to more public comment at the Assembly level as well.

Recent headlines