CPAT Post-Project Update: Unalaska, Alaska

In rural Southwest Alaska, the Aleutian Island chain extends far west through the Bering Sea and Pacific Ocean, and on one of those islands there is a small bustling community called Unalaska.

Despite being home to only about 4,500 permanent residents, Unalaska is in many ways a city that never sleeps, with a robust industrial economy (mostly a port economy focused on fishing, seafood processing, and international shipping) that truly functions on a 24/7 basis. Even with its reputation as a working town, Unalaska is surprisingly family-friendly, with one of the highest-quality school districts in the state of Alaska and a plethora of sincerely rich cultural and recreational opportunities.

Unalaska has many qualities for which communities around the nation strive — a thriving economy, high paying jobs, low crime rates, great schools, activities for youth, and more. However, the city has some very serious issues.

In particular, its isolated location — on an island 800 miles from the nearest city — poses unique problems. Access to the community is limited with high travel costs by airline. Internet connectivity is likewise limited by distance from the mainland. In addition, the cost of shipping goods to Unalaska creates an excessively high cost of living. Add the cost of shipping materials to the limited land availability, and the result is a very tight real estate market and high housing costs.

A view of Unalaska's downtown, also known as "the valley," which is primarily residential with several public facilities and parks. Photo by Ryan Scherzinger.

With these unique factors in mind, planners in Unalaska have been working for many years to find creative solutions to expand the development opportunities for residents, using various land use policies to promote infill development and continuing a tradition of relatively nonrestrictive urban design standards.

In addition to these policies, planners have recognized the need to guide development in a way that protects neighborhoods and focuses on varying land use needs throughout the city. Looking for stronger land use planning to help guide development appropriately, Unalaska applied to APA's Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program, leading to a team's visit to Unalaska in May 2014.

Unalaska welcomed the five planners and one APA staff member while they spent a week investigating planning issues in the community. Their efforts focused on public outreach related to land use planning and collecting information related to future port development.

The planning department used the team's final report — Future Land Use in Unalaska: Community & Partner Stakeholder Engagement, May 2014 — as a foundation for a new planning document for the community.

Immediately after receiving the final report, the planning department began a planning process to create a land use plan supplement to Unalaska's comprehensive plan. Because of the extensive public outreach done in the CPAT process, Unalaska planning staff had a massive amount of location-specific public input data to use as a starting point for land use recommendations.

A first draft of the land use plan was created based entirely on the data collected from the CPAT's visit. In addition, department staff had all of the raw data generated from the public forums led by the CPAT. All of this formed a very strong basis for the land use plan, which was put through a subsequent public review process.

Because of the effectiveness of the CPAT in Unalaska, the planning department was able to begin its public outreach for the land use plan by asking the question, "This is what we heard from you about future land; now did we get it right?"

With such a strong foundation established by the CPAT, it turned out that the public was generally quite positive about the land use plan the way it was presented, and it passed without any significant amendments, despite a large amount of follow up interest from the public. The planning commission made minor amendments before approving the plan, and the city council approved the plan in November 2015 without any amendments and after very little discussion.

It was viewed as a smooth, uncontentious planning process that was widely supported in the community, and that was made possible by the initial stages led by the CPAT.

The resulting land use plan has been very effective in providing guidance for decisions in Unalaska. In guiding development review decisions, the plan provides location specific recommendations that were nonexistent prior to its passage.

The comprehensive plan for Unalaska, in its 2011 form, had only broad policy statement related to the city as a whole; however, following the 2015 land use plan supplement, planning department staff has guidance related to specific neighborhoods and subareas and has used that guidance in making recommendations related to planning commission decisions.

This outcome is a noticeably improved process for land use decisions in Unalaska.

CPAT member Shelly Wade, AICP (leaning over map) engaged with community members during the first public workshop of the team's visit in May 2014. Photo by Ryan Scherzinger.

The successful process was noted by the APA Alaska Chapter, which gave the Unalaska Planning Department two statewide awards related to the project. The 2015 Public Outreach Award was for Unalaska's coordination of the CPAT with APA. The 2015 Small Town Project of the Year was for the Unalaska Land Use Plan as a whole.

Check out Unalaska's new Land Use Plan: 2015.

About the Author

Anthony Grande, AICP, is director of planning for the City of Unalaska.

Top image: The Unalaska community attended an open house on the final day of the visit. The team presented all the input collected from the community along with an analysis of their findings and solicited additional feedback. Photo by Ryan Scherzinger.

October 4, 2016

By Anthony Grande, AICP