Birchwood residents express development concerns

Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 13:08
  • Birchwood resident Jill Crosby asks questions at a Birchwood Community Council town hall meeting at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center on Sept. 14, 2017. Dozens of locals packed the center to learn more about potential plans to expand water and sewer infrastructure in the area. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Anchorage Assemblywoman Amy Demboski speaks at a Birchwood Community Council town hall meeting at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center on Sept. 14, 2017. Dozens of residents gathered to ask questions and learn more about potential plans to expand water and sewer infrastructure in the area. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Eklutna, Inc. CEO Curtis McQueen speaks at a Birchwood Community Council town hall meeting at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center on Sept. 14, 2017. Dozens of residents gathered to ask questions and learn more about potential plans to expand water and sewer infrastructure in the area. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

A town hall meeting on proposed water and sewer improvements drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center Sept. 14.

“I know this is a big topic for a lot of our community,” assemblywoman Amy Demboski said to the people gathered in the senior center dining room Thursday night. “This is effectively our way of engaging the community, just to start to explain the process, what people are talking about, what they’re thinking about.”

The infrastructure expansion – still in its very early planning stages — would be necessary to support up to 1,400 units of new housing on land in Birchwood owned by Eklutna, Inc., according to the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility. The proposed Powder Reserve development would require a new water transmission main and sewer trunk line, said AWWU General Manager Brett Jokela.

To pay for the multimillion-dollar infrastructure construction costs, the municipality is considering creating new utility improvement districts, giving local property owners the chance to vote on the infrastructure and pay if and when they connect. The proposed improvement districts could include homes between Eklutna Park Drive and South Birchwood Loop Road, according to preliminary maps distributed at an August Birchwood Community Council meeting.

The plan has yet to even make it off the drawing board. There is no formal proposal before the Anchorage Assembly said Demboski, who represents Chugiak-Eagle River. Any construction is at least two years away, according to utility representatives. Still, the idea drew sharp criticism and myriad concerns from dozens of locals at the Sept. 14 town hall.

“Everybody I’ve talked to in the neighborhood doesn’t want it,” said Margie Anton of North Birchwood.

Anton said she was worried about the ripple effects of large future housing development enabled by infrastructure expansion. Inside the senior center dining room, before the town hall meeting began, other Birchwood residents wondered aloud about the cost, the timeline and the long-term impacts of development. Some residents talked about selling their homes and moving away.

Nearly everyone had questions.

“Will property owners in this area be forced to pay a hookup fee?” asked Rep. Dan Saddler, (R-District 13). “Should people be afraid of being forced to pay for hookup or not?”

No, the AWWU general manager said; residents would have a choice.

Other Birchwood residents questioned the geological consequences of large-scale construction: Would 1,400 new units adversely affect local wells and septic systems? What about wetlands and wildlife?

Curtis McQueen, CEO of Eklutna, Inc., took the floor to address concerns about future development.

The Alaska Native corporation has spent more than $1 million studying aquifers throughout Chugiak and Eagle River, he said, and board members and corporate leadership respect habitat, land and water. At the same time, he said, his corporation recognizes the need for new housing and community collaboration.

“Every decision we make, we struggle with in the boardroom,” McQueen said. “We’ve realized: Development happens.”

The planned 1,400 housing units at Powder Reserve won’t appear overnight, he said. Across the street, at Powder Ridge, developers have built 360 homes since 2000. Construction at Powder Reserve would similarly respond to market demand, McQueen said. It may take 30 years to develop the entire parcel. Some of that development is mandated by a January 2017 legal settlement with the Municipality of Anchorage.

Infrastructure is the first hurdle, according to AWWU representatives. Financing the infrastructure is key.

“It’s a cash flow concern,” Jokela said. “That dilemma we’ve been struggling with for some time.”

The improvement districts could be a solution, he said.

But the vast majority of people who raised their hands to speak at the Sept. 14 town hall meeting opposed the idea. For many, the idea of future housing development is just as objectionable as the potential cost.

“We don’t want the high density,” said Mary Suter, a Birchwood resident since 1980. “I mean, look at Anchorage, there’s shootings every other day.”

Like many of her neighbors, Suter said she moved to Birchwood for its spacious, rural nature. To some residents, the idea of a new water transmission main and sewer trunk line seemed like the beginning of the end of their community’s quiet way of life.

“I just don’t want to see that area wrecked,” Margie Anton said. “So I’m going to make all the meetings and try and clarify more and if I can help fight it, I will.”

A Birchwood resident since 1984, Lonnie Sullivan said he attended the Sept. 14 town hall to listen and learn more about the potential infrastructure expansion.

“It’s not what I want to see happen, but this is just getting us information – this is not anything to get upset about, this is a community coming together and asking the questions about a proposal that isn’t even in front of the Assembly,” Sullivan said. “It’s kind of a little bit premature, but I’m open-minded – I always look at the issues and the facts.”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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