By Aly De Angelus

The Planning and Zoning Commission is considering a change to borough law to clarify that people can use a yurt as a permanent, single-family dwelling as long as it meets all building standards in municipal code.

A yurt that does not meet the building standards could be used as a tent in an approved campground, but not as permanent housing.

The commission held a work session Jan. 7 to discuss the proposed code revision, with further action scheduled for its Jan. 9 meeting. If approved by the commission, the code change would go to the borough assembly for its consideration.

Planning and zoning commissioners raised three primary concerns over the code change, the first being whether or not a yurt-style structure could overpower Skagway’s aesthetic and culture.

“I don’t see (yurts) springing up in the paradigm we have today,” said Assemblymember Orion Hanson, who serves as assembly liaison to the commission.

“I have some concerns that we are going to turn into Yurt City,” Commissioner Matt Deach said. 

However, Deach and other commissioners were at ease when a rough count at the table revealed less than five yurts built in town in the past 10 years, and most of those are alongside Dyea Road. 

If passed, Skagway Municipal Code (SMC) 19.02.065 will redefine yurts and distinguish key differences between a yurt and a tent. The new code would define a yurt as a “portable, wood lattice-framed dwelling structure covered by material such as felt or canvas.”

According to the proposal, a yurt could be approved as a permanent, single-family home if it meets all building standards outlined in Skagway code.

A tent is defined as “a temporary structure, enclosure or shelter constructed of fabric pliable material, supported by any manner except by air or the contents it protects.”

Much of the commission’s yurt discussion on Jan. 7 focused on safety. Though a yurt may function as a portable structure, commissioners argued that a structure has to be able to withstand high winds in the Valley.

Hanson argued that the cost of adding steel cables to a wooden frame is not cheap, questioning whether or not it’s a cost-effective solution to provide year-round housing.

Deach added that a yurt also would have to pass rigorous code requirements as a dwelling unit for residential use, requiring adequate insulation, plumbing and a sewage system. 

The Jan. 7 discussion of yurts ended with a final question: What is someone allowed to use a yurt for? In addition to using a non-building code yurt as a temporary tent shelter, a majority of the commissioners agreed that a yurt could also be approved as an office or storage place, though the need to satisfy building code would be a gray area. 

Mayor Andrew Cremata said he is open-minded to housing alternatives but would like to see a more eco-friendly, long-term solution for housing.

“If your building is not energy efficient it doesn’t matter if you can reuse the materials or not, it’s having an adverse effect on the environment,” Cremata said in an interview with The Skagway News.

“I am not anti-yurt, but Band-Aid fixes are not something that I am a fan of. I would rather look at long-term solutions.”