Advisory board hears land use, construction concerns

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 10:36

A controversial high-density housing development and proposed changes to Anchorage building code dominated the discussion at a Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board meeting Feb. 11.

More than three dozen people attended the gathering at the Eagle River Town Center building. The advisory board – which is comprised of representatives from each of the six local community councils and has the statutory power to weigh in on local land issues — heard a litany of complaints about a plan to develop hundreds of housing units at the Carol Creek site adjacent the Eagle River Fred Meyer and the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center.

“Our biggest concern – what we’ve heard from the folks that come to our council – is public process, public process, public process,” said advisory board member Michael Foster, president of the Eagle River Community Council.

The public process in question involves the development of two parcels of land owned by the Heritage Land Bank (HLB), a municipal agency established to manage uncommitted municipal property. In December, the HLB Advisory Commission voted to support an updated land use plan for those parcels, imposing a 359-unit cap on future development.

While the figure it a significant reduction from a previous top-end estimate of 537 units, it’s a sharp increase from the 125-unit cap outlined in a 2010 land use plan. It’s also higher than numbers presented to local community councils during a 2016 public review process, residents say.

After receiving two complaints about the issue, municipal ombudsman Darrel Hess reviewed the public process and found no flaws.

“In fact, the public process for this proposal exceeded the requirements of Municipal Code,” Hess wrote in response to the complaints.

Despite the ombudsman’s review, a vocal handful of Chugiak and Eagle River residents continue to protest. Jake Horazdovsky, an advisory board member and vice president of the Chugiak Community Council, said the whole thing was tainted by revision: After the new land use plan was presented to his council last year, he said, more than 100 additional units were added to the cap.

“There was no public process on this massive increase in the number of housing units in their plan,” Horazdovsky said Saturday. “In our opinion, that voids the public process for this plan, because they did not come out and present what they’re actually doing.”

The revised land use plan has yet to be approved by the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission or the Anchorage Assembly. There’s no timeline for any future construction. Still, the prospect of high-density housing in the heart of Eagle River has sparked strong objections. While residents acknowledge the need for more plentiful, affordable housing, the Carol Creek proposal rankled many attendees at Saturday’s advisory board meeting.

“We’re concerned, we don’t think it belongs, we don’t think it fits,” said Sandy Quimby.

After lengthy discussion, the advisory board agreed to state its unanimous objection to the plan; a move board members hoped would send it back to the drawing board.

The Carol Creek conversation followed an hourlong debate about a new ordinance amending requirements for building on steep slopes. Proposed changes to municipal land use code would require all buildings outside of Anchorage’s Building Safety Service Area (BSSA) to have a foundation designed by a professional engineer.

Opinions were split: Located outside the Anchorage BSSA, Chugiak and Eagle River are governed by a special, separate section of Anchorage’s Title 21. To some meeting attendees, the requirement represented an encroachment into Chugiak-Eagle River’s planning autonomy.

“The way I personally viewed it…this is them putting their first toe in the water to pull us into the BSSA,” said Chugiak-Eagle River assemblywoman Amy Demboski.

Some questioned the economic effects of the proposed ordinance: Would it add an extra expense to the development of already-expensive local housing stock? Others questioned its necessity: Why should local government legislate prudent construction practices? To some meeting attendees, though, the proposed ordinance made sense.

“As a structural engineer who avoids residential like the plague, I actually like being out here because of the lack of inspection, but it has also caused plenty of requests for my services, to deal with problems of homes that – with a little bit of engineering up front – would have saved people a ton of money,” Bart Quimby told advisory board members. “Your average homeowner hasn’t got a clue as to whether his foundation is adequate or not … Out in Eagle River, I’d say there’s an awful lot of business of structural engineers because of the lack of inspection and pre-engineering that goes into it.”

Ultimately, the advisory board voted 5-1 to object to the proposed engineering requirement. A public hearing on the issue was set to take place at the assembly’s Feb. 14 meeting.

The board also discussed rezoning plans for a new substance abuse treatment facility off Eklutna Lake Road, expressing cautious support for the general concept. Cook Inlet Tribal Council intends to relocate the Ernie Turner Center, currently based in Anchorage, and the Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to consider the move March 6.

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