Story last updated at 2:08 p.m. Thursday, May 9, 2002

Planning panel backs permit for big buildings
by Joel Gay
Staff Writer

City planners and real estate agents agree that large structures built in Homer's downtown core should look good and complement the neighborhood, but they differ on how to accomplish the goal.

The Advisory Planning Commission last week approved a proposal that would require large buildings <> anything with a first-floor footprint of 8,000 square feet or more, or which covers more than 30 percent of its lot <> to get a conditional use permit before construction would begin.

The key word is "conditional." By including large developments on the list of conditional uses, the planning commission can require a builder to alter the development in any number of ways before it provides the permit. A dissatisfied developer can appeal to the Homer City Council.

Although the commission approved the proposed ordinance change, the city council has the final word. The ordinance is not yet scheduled for introduction.

The plan addresses any large building, but is related to what are often called "big-box" retail businesses, which might locate in Homer.

The Kachemak Board of Realtors agrees that buildings downtown should fit in, said president Karen Berg-Forrester. "We could support architectural guidelines, low lighting, signage, ingress/egress limits," she said. "But we would like to see written guidelines to direct how our community should look rather than giving an advisory committee the right to be capricious and arbitrary and pursue their personal agendas."

It's tough to sell property to someone whose development requires a conditional use permit, Berg-Forrester said, because there are no specific guidelines to follow.

"None of us want Homer to look like Soldotna," she said, but the conditional use ordinance doesn't say what it wants Homer to look like.

Bill Smith, chairman of the Advisory Planning Commission, said he agrees the conditional use ordinance could contain more specific guidelines, but added that it can never be so comprehensive that it anticipates every future development.

Homer's parking regulations are a good case, he said. They are so rigid that they don't work in certain cases, such as the parking space demands at the new Marine Center. The city's only option is to issue a variance, or exemption from the law, which defeats the purpose of the law, he said.

The parking laws are now being amended to give planners the same kind of flexibility that the conditional use process allows, he said.

Smith disputed the notion that requiring conditional use permits for large buildings <> only eight exist in downtown Homer already <> is arbitrary and capricious.

"It's the essence of government," he said. "It's people getting together to dictate what's proper in our community."

If a planning commission seems out of step with the community, it's up to the mayor and city council to change its direction, Smith said. "If the community doesn't want us here, we're going away."