Juneau Assembly considers repealing 1980s-era development rules, hazard maps

a landslide
Residents examine the aftermath of a landslide on Gastineau Avenue in Juneau on Sept. 27, 2022. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly may repeal existing hazard maps and development restrictions that have been in place since the 1980s as the debate about how the city should address landslide and avalanche dangers in downtown Juneau continues. 

“Everybody seems to agree that those current maps are not as good as they should be,” said Deputy Mayor Maria Gladziszewski. “The question is — what responsibility does CBJ have to regulate development in those places that are hazards?”

The new proposal is a departure from previous attempts to adopt new, more precise hazard maps that would expand land use restrictions to more downtown homes. Instead, the proposal presented in Monday night’s committee of the whole meeting would abandon existing land use restrictions for hazard zones altogether. 

The committee will continue the discussion in their next meeting. But some members of the Assembly, including Michelle Hale, objected to the proposal, citing the need for more expert testimony to understand the complexity of avalanche and landslide zones. 

“It feels like we’re flailing around, trying to do something,” Hale said. “But we don’t understand this very well.”

Efforts to update hazard zones in downtown Juneau have stalled since the city commissioned new hazard maps — made with more advanced science — more than two years ago. The new maps, which designate more than twice as many properties in severe hazard zones than the existing maps, have caused widespread concern from both policymakers and homeowners.

The new maps are different because they treat landslide and avalanche zones separately. The old maps lump them together, even though they’re distinct hazards with different risk factors.

The severe avalanche areas are quite similar between the maps, and the committee’s proposal does leave room for reintroducing development restrictions on avalanche zones.

The bigger challenge is figuring out what to do about landslides. The new maps added or upgraded some neighborhoods to a severe hazard designation because of their landslide potential. That’s led many homeowners to oppose the adoption of the new maps and the accompanying ordinance, believing it might restrict their ability to get loans or insurance on their property in the future.

Gladziszewski, who authored the new proposal, said she has not formally consulted with lending agencies or insurance agents to corroborate those concerns.

Member Wade Bryson expressed his support for repealing existing development restrictions, saying that the city should leave it up to developers and property owners to avoid hazard zones.

“The concern that we’ll have a whole bunch of people building in hazard zones because we don’t have a hazard or an avalanche zone labeled, I think that would be mistaken thinking,” Bryson said. 

The proposal attempts to respond to public testimony by not adopting new landslide maps. 

But it would adopt the new avalanche maps — which are similar to the old ones — and enact an updated land use code for avalanche zones only. The details of that updated code have not yet been outlined. 

Some members of the committee expressed hesitation about ignoring landslide hazards.

“The public does not yet know how serious the risk of landslides are in Juneau,” said member Christine Woll. “And that they’re getting worse with climate change.”

According to the Juneau Climate Change Report, landslides are expected to increase as climate change brings more extreme rainstorms to Southeast Alaska.  

One of Juneau’s worst disasters was a 1936 landslide on South Franklin Street that killed 15 people.

The new proposal will be the basis for a draft land use ordinance, which will be discussed in a future committee of the whole meeting. 

Previous articleAlaska marijuana industry says baked-in taxes are too high
Next articleNOAA’s Okeanos Explorer wraps up Alaska expedition