Sitka to investigate whether city land can be opened up to ease housing crunch

(KCAW screenshot)

Sitka’s planning department will investigate whether several sections of city and state-owned land can be opened up for housing development.

Finding solutions to Sitka’s housing shortage is a goal of both the city’s comprehensive and strategic plans. At a recent Sitka Planning Commission meeting, Planning Director Amy Ainslie highlighted tracts of municipal land that might be good for housing development. Ainslie said she focused on large swaths of land that are close to existing power and water connections.

“As we have found in all of our other studies, the farther you are away from utility infrastructure, the more expensive the cost is going to be,” Ainslie said. “And if the goal is affordable housing, then obviously having high utility expenses…contravenes the whole goal, right?”

Ainslie said a large section of city-owned land behind Sitka High School is at the top of the list. She said the city should also consider state-owned land through the Indian River Valley.

“I think it’s an area worth exploring and with the current administration, there has been some interest in working with with municipalities to open state lands, in particular to give state lands to municipalities,” Ainslie said. “There’s a lot of focus on housing too. So I think it’s a good opportunity for us to be working with the state on this piece of land.”

Ainslie said there are three questions city staff need to answer in evaluating the land – whether it’s safe and buildable, how much housing can be built in the area and how much it will cost. To answer those questions, Ainslie said she’s budgeting for a study of the properties, which she hopes to kick off by the beginning of the next fiscal year, and fund through grants.

Commissioner Katie Riley said she was excited about the prospect of opening up more land for housing. But she noted that it doesn’t solve the immediate problem of affordable housing in Sitka.

“Houses are built. They’re sold to the folks who can afford them, which a lot of the times are not necessarily the folks that are looking for housing in town,” Riley said. “So having having a discussion, you know, amongst this body of what affordability is, what that means? I know that it’s a topic that we all hold a lot of different opinions on, and so I’m excited to explore that as well.”

During public comment, Sitka resident Martina Kurzer said she hoped that further down the line, developers would consider options beyond single-family homes. She recalled apartment buildings she saw on a recent trip to Juneau’s Auke Bay.

“I saw three buildings that were very attractive…overlooking the harbor there,” Kurzer said. “And I was wondering, they have a lot more space than we do. But is that anything? Is there anything we could do? How could we change our thinking to make the best with the limited available space we have?”

Ainslie, the planning director, said in the new year the commission could hold a special session to seek more community feedback on the land and its potential for housing development.

KCAW - Sitka

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