At the turn of the century, residents of the largest city in the 49th state recognized that the city was changing around them. The population had tripled since statehood. In the final decade of the twentieth century alone, the municipality added over thirty-thousand residents. Thus, in 2001, Anchorage residents turned to the pioneer spirit that built a city from tents spread over a couple city blocks on 4th Avenue, and sought to devise a strategy for the future of their city on the move.
The municipal assembly, the mayor, and an engaged citizenry, developed that strategy into a plan for development going into the future. It was called “Anchorage 2020: Anchorage Bowl Comprehensive Plan.”
Then-Mayor George Wuerch touted the process that led to it’s passage through the assembly: “The plan was produced over a five-year period through the collective efforts of many individuals and groups throughout the community,” he said in an introduction, also adding that the community process had produced “a better understanding of the many factors that contribute to the quality of life we enjoy in Anchorage.” He viewed the effort as something that should serve as a “guide for elected and appointed officials as they deliberate community development issues.”
The effort won a Public Education award from the American Planning Association, because of how the process that culminated in its existence “enlisted hundreds of citizens, published numerous clip-and-send surveys in local newspapers, and held well-publicized focus groups, workshops, organized task forces and community meetings” which clearly outlined the “future goals for the municipality as prescribed by the desires of its residents, who made educated decisions and selected preferences from clearly illustrated scenarios.”
A decade and change later, however, a new administration lead by Mayor Dan Sullivan – who voted for the plan as a member of the assembly in 2001 – has scheduled “Anchorage 2020” for a face-lift.
Some people aren’t too happy about that.
One of them is John Weddleton. Weddleton is a 25-year Anchorage resident, a businessman, and a self-described “Title 21 advocate.” Over the past handful of months, Weddleton has been on a tour around the city, addressing community councils and forums, giving voice to concerns regarding the “Title 21 Rewrite” as both a private citizen and as part of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition. The Coalition’s website states that their goal is to make Anchorage “the most livable city in America… [through] broad-based public involvement and implementation of Anchorage 2020….”
Weddleton appeared at last month’s “State of Our City” forum at Romig Middle School, and expressed concern over new things emerging in the rewrite which run counter to the 2001 plan. Some small aesthetic differences – for instance requiring that the architecture of new box stores blend in with the neighborhoods around them – can noticeably alter how a part of town feels. Conversely, it’s hard to get people excited about moving in next to giant cement shoe boxes. Seemingly small and uncontroversial protections put in to the “2020” plan via community input have legitimate multiplier effects, and can affect property values over extended periods of time. They were painstakingly put in the comprehensive plan for a reason. And many are being taken out, without the same clarity in reasoning.
“You need to ask yourself: What makes you happy to live in Anchorage?” Weddleton challenged the audience in West Anchorage in late November. “Where do you want to end up here?”
Well, how did any of us end up here? Title 21 has quite the timeline.
In 2011, Mayor Sullivan hired former Assemblyman Dan Coffey to a $30,000 contract as a consultant to make recommendations on a rewrite. Coffey’s history and knowledge of Title 21 is not lacking: he described himself to the Anchorage Press that year as a “land use and government regulatory attorney for over thirty years.” He served on the Planning and Zoning Commission during the Wuerch administration, when the Anchorage 2020 plan was adopted, and went on to join the assembly where he served two terms. Part of that job entailed him serving on the Title 21 committee.
But there is also a healthy dose of controversy, given Coffey’s prevalent ties to the Anchorage business community. Do Coffey’s business dealings and professional relationships represent a conflict of interest?
In June of last year, political strategist and pollster Ivan Moore coined an editorial for the Press that alleged Coffey had “only been allowing input from developer interests.”
Current Assemblywomen Elvi Gray Jackson narrowly lost to Dan Coffey in the 2007 municipal election before picking up the seat the following year. During that first run, her campaign published a website that aimed to raise questions as to who Coffey worked for as an elected official: special interests or the constituents who vote for him to represent them.
The anti-Coffey website, still online as of this writing, pointed out that between April 2004 and January 2007, assembly members had to either recuse themselves, were ordered to abstain from voting on 141 occasions, due to some sort of conflict of interest. Of the 141 total incidents, Coffey was the subject on 128 occasions (though on 8 accounts, he was still permitted to vote). These cases included his dealings with liquor stores, restaurants, hotels, clubs, quickie marts, car rental services, restaurants, and a singles’ club.
Coffey’s heavy entanglements with business ventures could constitute a conflict of interest as a consultant hired to make recommendations on the future land use code for the city. It certainly did on over a hundred occasions during his tenure on the Assembly.
But the former assemblyman countered, in a published response to Moore, that: “the emphasis should be on the words ‘make recommendations.’ Like me, the Commission has no authority to create or impose laws. It makes recommendations on land use law to the assembly. Our Charter gave the assembly, and no one else, the authority to adopt our laws.”
The assembly, however, is not a static body. And 2010 was a drastically different political landscape than today. At that time, the mayor faced a slim 6-5 margin that often opposed him. Two years later, Adam Trombley has replaced Mike Gutierrez in East Anchorage and Harriet Drummond has been elected to the state house. The assembly will appoint her replacement, who we can fairly safely assume will an ally of the mayor. Ernie Hall, since assuming the chairmanship, has generally supported the administration’s positions. The body’s current makeup (after Drummond’s appointment is seated) could rubber stamp any changes made by Coffey to the tune of an 8-3 split.
This shouldn’t come as much a surprise. Coffey used his involvement in the Title 21 rewrite in a 2011 campaign letter he sent out to the Anchorage Home Builders Association. In the letter, he stated that the coming municipal election offered “another clear choice between those who want to see our city grow and develop economically and those who want to impose costly and unnecessary government regulations on development.” He specifically endorsed candidates who would vote for his “re-work” of the legislation. One of the three, Adam Trombley, won.
Dianne Holmes, also a member of the Anchorage Citizens Coalition, testified before the Assembly two weeks after Coffey’s letter surfaced and objected. She felt that efforts for public involvement were “barely given lip service,” and elaborated: “The process has been stalled with sole source contracts…. Moreover, how can the public trust that their input is worth anything when the same contractor writes a political campaign letter saying that Title 21 is anti-development and that it is being reworked, not merely edited?”
There has been no public outcry. But Holmes’ assertion that this was by design doesn’t seem conspiratorial. Not when acknowledging that the assembly was expected to pass, in its entirety, the 2020 plan – which was already passed over ten years ago – two years ago.
Either way, the assembly will once more take up the issue on January 15. It will be under-reported. It won’t be understood with the necessity it demands. And its effects will change Anchorage over generations.
[John Aronno serves as staff to Patrick Flynn on the Assembly. His views are irreparably his own.]