The assembly is deciding today whether to change the process for appealing land use determinations.

While these appeals are rare, some local leaders say the system is too cumbersome.

A proposal by Assemblyman Matt Cooper and Assemblywomen Leah Berman Williams and Marna Sanford replaces the Planning Commission with the Borough Assembly, acting as the Board of Adjustment, on some appeals — namely decisions of the borough administration or the Platting Board — and removes the assembly as the final authority on other appeals, such as grandfather rights and amnesty relief.

“It makes a three-step process instead of a four-step process in some situations,” said Borough Mayor Bryce Ward, a fan of the measure.

Not a fan of the ordinance were five members of the Fairbanks North Star Borough Planning Commission who voted against recommending its passage. Their concerns, according to a memorandum to the assembly by the acting director of community planning, are threefold.

“It is unclear whether there’s any cost savings with this change, either for the appellant or the FNSB,” reads the memo by Kellen Spillman. “The opportunity to be heard by a mayor-appointed body and an elected body is eliminated. There doesn’t appear to be a need to change the existing procedures.”

Ward had attempted to streamline the appeals process last year with his own ordinance creating a Board of Appeals but that idea was voted down. Ordinance No. 2021-27 is the sequel. The measure can be viewed at bit.ly/3pHyg6T.

A Sept. 14 community planning report outlines the merits of the ordinance.

“An average of approximately two community planning-associated decisions have been appealed each year over the past eight years,” the report reads. “Some of these cases and others were withdrawn at various points in the process and may have not gone through the full appeals process.”

For Platting Board appeals, the Planning Commissions currently must receive training in advance of taking up the appeal. If those appeals are transferred to the assembly, those leaders would receive the training, according to the planning staff analysis.

“The Board of Adjustment has the ability to appoint a hearing examiner or sometimes chooses to remand an appeal case back to the Planning Commission, as was the case in 2015 with a conditional use for a communications tower and in 2016 with a conditional use for a school building,” the report reads.

The current process for appealing floodplain and administrative decisions potentially includes two hearings in front of a borough panel. First, the Planning Commission, and if that decision is appealed, then it would go to the Board of Adjustment. Under the ordinance, the next step after the Planning Commission would be state court.

Removing the Board of Adjustment would make the process more efficient, according to the analysis.

“Each hearing can be time-consuming and costly,” the staff analysis reads. “This change does appear to streamline the process, as the Board of Adjustment is cut out of the process entirely. Staff has no objection to this change.”

The report noted that changing from the Planning Commission to the Borough Assembly for appeals related to platting does not necessarily lesson the burden on the appellant and “the Planning Commission may be more likely to have some land use-related expertise that would be valuable in hearing appeals on subdivision-related decisions.”

The ordinance does not change appeals of the Planning Commission’s quasi-judicial decisions, such as variances or conditional use permits, which are referred to the assembly acting as the Board of Adjustment.

“This ordinance does not propose any changes to that procedure. Staff agrees that this is appropriate to leave as-is,” the analysis reads.

Sanford, a sponsor of the ordinance, said the appeals process needs uniformity and this proposal achieves that.

“If you come to the borough with an issue, you are going have the same opportunities whether you bring in a zoning issue or whether you bring in a platting issue,” she said.

“Unless there is a lot of pushback, I am probably a yes vote,” said Mindy O’Neall, presiding officer of the assembly. “I generally support things that make doing business with the borough easier, less convoluted and more transparent.”

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 907-459-7545, at abohman@newsminer.com or follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.

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