Chugiak council votes to oppose hundreds of new housing units

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 12:33
  • According to the 2016 Site-Specific Land Use Plan, areas behind the Fred Meyers may have up to 30 housing units per acre.

The Carol Creek area of Eagle River may eventually see a cluster of new housing units, more than 500 in fact, if a proposal by the Heritage Land Bank is approved. But residents are opposed. Why? Too much traffic, too much density and too much of a change to the community’s rural character.

The Chugiak Community Council called a special meeting on Thursday, Dec. 1, to address the issue and ended up voting unanimously to oppose the plan.

What’s in contention is a 92-acre parcel of land owned by the HLB. Located near the Harry J. McDonald center and the Fire Lake Elementary School, the parcel is behind Fred Meyer and bordered by the Old Glenn Highway to the northwest, Mendenhall Street to the north, and the Brandywine Subdivision to the south.

The Heritage Land Bank is owned by the Municipality of Anchorage and manages about 10,000 acres distributed about equally between Chugiak and Girdwood. It is part of the Real Estate Department and according to the MOA its mission is to manage “uncommitted municipally owned land in the HLB inventory and the HLB Fund in a manner designed to benefit the present and future citizens of Anchorage, promote orderly development, and achieve the goals of the Comprehensive Plan.”

Tanya Iden of Agnew::Beck Consulting, presenting on behalf of HLB, walked the council through the 2016 proposal, which revises the Site-Specific Land Use Plan that was approved in 2010.

Pointing on a map, Iden referred to a section that allowed 1 to 2 housing units per acre, similar to adjacent residential areas. Then she pointed to a section labeled “low density” that would allow 7 to 10 units per acre.

Ten housing units per acre? The audience became alarmed.

Two parcels on the western tract directly behind Fred Meyer would allow for 15 to 30 units per acre. The audience was agitated.

Yes, the 2010 plan originally called for 125 dwelling units. The 2016 plan allows for up to 537 units.

Background

It took several years before the 2010 Site Specific Land Use Plan was even finalized. Going through a robust public process, the plan received community support. But not much has happened with the HLB parcel since then.

Recently, the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, after identifying an area with the right elevation and location to serve the needs of Eagle River, sought to purchase a part of the parcel from HLB for a new reservoir. In April 2016, the Chugiak Community Council passed a motion of support for the water storage project, taking into consideration the need to provide essential services.

The water reservoir is not contingent on any other development, but still requires a revision to the 2010 plan to proceed. However, because HLB had originally designated the 92-acre parcel for new residential units, the organization decided to review the entire plan, not only to include AWWU’s request for land, but close the housing gap by bringing more moderate price houses in a mixed-density market.

According to the Carol Creek study produced for HLB, “The Administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz is committed to improving housing options across the Municipality, including identifying underutilized municipally-owned properties that have potential for new housing development.”

The Administration therefore directed HLB to look for opportunities to move land to market for housing.

Proposed units would retain access to open space, an elementary school, trails and recreation. There is no guarantee that a developer would actually build the maximum number of units, Iden said, but such an option is possible. That is because, she explained, the HLB wanted the market to decide what would work in the area, while spreading the cost of required infrastructure across more housing units, making such units more affordable.

(Moderate priced housing is a clear distinction from “Affordable Housing”: the former is what potential residents can afford, while the latter is for residents who require subsidies.)

In addition, the revised plan now includes development standards — as no one wants to live near an ugly house — with constraints respectful of a natural setting (creek and wetlands).

Plan B

Knowing that residents were concerned with too much too fast, Agnew::Beck came up with an alternative proposal to the 2016 revised plan. Instead of 537 proposed units, the alternative will allow 378 units, with at least 201 units to be built.

This figure is still three times the original.

Impact studies have not yet been conducted on either the revised plan or its alternative, to determine the possible effects on fire and police service, traffic patterns and schools in the area. Roads and sewer and drainage needs must also be addressed.

The reality is, said Chris Beck, owner and principal of Agnew::Beck Consulting, for the project to get off the ground it requires construction of the AWWU water storage and water line. That is about five to 10 years out.

“Details on how the project is going to unfold are really quite preliminary,” Beck said.

Unwelcome change

Residents at the special meeting expressed dissatisfaction with both the 2016 revised plan, and its alternative, calling both unacceptable. Chugiak-Eagle River currently has about 80 percent undeveloped land, and residents over the years have been drawn to the area’s large lots and rural character.

“We moved out here because of the low density and a single family house,” said John Abrams, who has been living here since 1970. The school is already up to capacity, he said, and has a lot of surrounding traffic. With more cars, he stressed, it’s going to be even more of a traffic mess, crammed into a pocket.

Other residents noted that recently developed high density housing in certain areas of Eagle River are not exactly selling like hotcakes. Plus, there are limited venues for families that may be in the community’s interest to focus on, instead of more housing.

Sandy Quimby, who has been closely following the matter and keeping neighbors informed, believes going from 1 to 2 houses per acre to 7 to 10 is not protecting the quality and character of the community.

Kimi Donnelly was highly concerned that a developer would not just build the maximum allowed, but try to push beyond what is possible.

It’s certainly now low-density, said Kay Abrams, explaining that the area is zoned for one to two units per acre at most. “Doesn’t anyone listen to us?” she asked. The community had previously talked it out, previously compromised, and came to a conclusion back in 2010. Now, she said, “we are right back to where we started from.”

Council opposed

The Chugiak Community Council resolved to oppose the revised 2016 plan and its alternative. In addition, the council called for the public process to be reopened.

Thirty voted in favor, 2 abstained, 0 opposed.

“I think the process was probably not as good as it should have been and people feel like they have been left out,” said Chugiak Community Council President Maria Rentz, noting that whatever presentation was out on the web was neither active nor participatory.

HLB has made presentations to several community councils. In addition, residents within 750 feet of the 92-acre parcel — about 525 residences — each received a postcard back in March informing them of a public workshop about the planning process. However, Agnew::Beck, having received many letters and calls of complaint, has acknowledged that the public did not feel informed.

The Heritage Land Bank Advisory Committee is scheduled to vote on a resolution endorsing the 2016 alternative at its Thursday, Dec. 8 meeting at 11:30 a.m. at the Municipality of Anchorage Permit & Development Center at 4700 Elmore Road. Written public testimony will be accepted via e-mail until Tuesday, Dec. 6. The HLB can be reached at (907) 343-7534.

Should the 2016 plan revision be endorsed by the Heritage Land Bank Advisory Committee, the matter would next go to the municipal Planning and Zoning Commission and ultimately have to be approved by the Anchorage Assembly.

Stephanie Prokop can be reached at [email protected].

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