The Sitka assembly is moving ahead with the sale of about 20 acres of Benchlands property to a local developer — but what is ultimately built on the land will depend on market forces, rather than on an affordable housing plan.
The assembly agreed to proceed with drawing up an agreement with Sound Development, LLC, after a lengthy discussion about whether city hall should try include language requiring that the result be affordable.
Sound Development is the name of a relatively new business created by Sitkans Todd Fleming and Jeremy Twaddle. Back in April, the pair submitted a 44-page proposal outlining their idea for developing the Benchlands.
Twaddle is a professional builder who’s put in years of service on Sitka’s Planning and Zoning Commission. He summed up Sitka’s basic problem as follows:
In this town there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of houses or builders, or individuals or entities qualified to build buildings. There’s just a serious shortage of land to do that. Sitka’s been burdened with these challenges for years, and it’s getting to a critical point again where people look online or in the newspaper, and there’s a very limited amount of vacant land — raw land available to build on that’s fully served by utilities and roads and the appropriate infrastructure. And of those lots that are available, many of them are what you might call higher end — ocean view lots, oceanfront lots. So there’s nothing on the lower end, and nothing in the mid-range that’s out there on the market right now. It creates a void, and it stagnates new development if there’s nowhere to build. Building construction can’t continue. Outside, or inside people can’t continue to grow their families here within Sitka. We’re just trying to attack it at the very foundation, the very base level of trying to provide the land.
Twaddle and Fleming submitted their plan in response to a Request for Proposals — or RFP — for the development of about 20 acres of property called the South Benchlands. This is the area along Kramer Drive as you turn up the road from Sandy Beach. There are four large parcels in the proposed sale, on both sides of the road.
The language of the RFP followed language in the Sitka Comprehensive Plan, and although it doesn’t require an affordable housing program, it points in that direction by asking developers to “encourage diverse housing types and densities in order to assure decent housing for all persons in all income groups.”
Twaddle and Fleming propose creating diversity by developing lots in a way that could allow for the construction of Planned Unit Developments — PUD’s — or cluster homes, and some other higher density possibilities. The rest would be up to the market.
This is where the assembly bogged down. Should the sales agreement for the land somehow be written to enforce the spirit of the RFP, or would the market alone be enough?
Some on the assembly thought this was going too far. Among them, Pete Esquiro.
“I’d like to see the whole kit and kaboodle up there sold to a private developer, and let’s get out of the real estate business altogether. Well here’s one step toward getting out of the real estate business, and you’ve got to take the first stroke on this swim sometime”
And Thor Christianson.
“You know we first started talking, saying We’re going to try and figure out a way to do it with the RFP. I’m coming back to, I just want to sell it. The land is restricted by its zoning, by the development process. We know what their plan is. I don’t have a problem just selling it.”
But that opened a legal can of worms. Acting administrator Mike Harmon and municipal attorney Robin Koutchak were concerned about just dropping the terms of the RFP, especially when Twaddle and Fleming had gone to such lengths to respond to it. An outright sale, Koutchak said, may require putting the land back out on the open market. She thought the assembly was straying from its objective.
“There was talk at the last meeting on the 23rd from the assembly — the talk was quite different. The talk then was about affordable housing and what would be built there. And the RFP was geared towards affordable housing. And now what I’m hearing from the assembly is a completely different tone saying, We want out of the real estate business. And you’re saying you don’t care what they build up there because the market’s going to dictate it.”
Koutchak was encouraging the assembly to be specific in the sales agreement, if it desired a specific outcome from the sale.
In the end, it may have been a couple of factors — fear of micro-managing, as Matt Hunter put it — and an overall trust in Twaddle and Fleming to stick to their plan, that led the assembly to allow the interim administration and Sound Development to move ahead on a sales agreement based on the RFP.
Mayor Mim McConnell said all the pieces were there.
“The RFP and Sound Development’s proposal does address affordable housing. So I feel they’re being responsive to the RFP in that regard.”
The assembly’s vote was 7-0. The sales agreement will go back to the assembly for final approval at a future meeting.