Opponents of Carol Creek density change score big win at PNZ
One by one, nearly 20 people stepped to the microphone inside the Anchorage Assembly hall Monday night to sing different renditions of the same tune.
Their chorus didn’t fall on deaf ears.
“I’m just glad someone listened to what we’ve been saying,” said Sandy Quimby, who was all smiles after the Anchorage Planning and Zoning Commission voted to postpone action on a widely panned proposal to increase allowable density housing on a parcel of municipal land near the McDonald Center in Eagle River.
As the unofficial ringleader of a group of Chugiak-Eagle River residents who’ve been sounding the alarm about the plan for more than a year, Quimby has spent much of the past few months sending group emails, posting on social media, attending community council meetings and digging into planning documents — all in an effort to combat a proposal she and others described during public testimony Monday as not in keeping with the Chugiak-Eagle River lifestyle.
The commission postponed action on the proposal in order to allow the petitioner — in this case, the municipality’s Heritage Land Bank (HLB) — to submit it again in a month without a request to more than triple the number of housing units allowed on the land. Instead, the new plan will be submitted with densities the same as they are now.
Land manager Robin Ward indicated the HLB would not be against such a revision.
“We would not oppose an amendment if the commission feels a lower density would be appropriate,” Ward told the commission.
The concession represents a huge victory for local residents, who have fought the density increase at every turn. Local community councils have passed resolutions opposing the proposed density change (in some cases, more than once) on the grounds higher density housing is not compatible with the 2010 Chugiak-Eagle River Comprehensive Plan and would increase crime in the area, burden existing traffic infrastructure and spoil the character of the steep, wooded neighborhood.
“On any given day you might see children laughing and playing or you might step on our back porch and see a lynx, moose or even a bear quietly wandering by,” said Jesse James, who told commissioners he and his family moved to Eagle River last year to get away from crime in Anchorage.
“I feel that this type of lifestyle and daily living experience is at risk should a development project be approved as proposed,” he said.
Kim Donnelly said she’s worried what higher density housing could do to the character of the neighborhood.
“Who would want to bring their first-time family to a violent and dangerous place?” she asked.
The potential for higher density housing in the area to bring more crime was a concern expressed by numerous people in their public testimony — a sentiment that led to the only tense exchange of an otherwise cordial and occasionally lighthearted hearing.
The moment came following the testimony of lifelong Eagle River resident Kara Cronan, who ended her remarks with a story from her youth about driving into Anchorage with her family.
“The high density that’s proposed, it just does not compliment the neighborhood, it does not compliment the atmosphere of our community,” she said. “And, just, I’d like to end with a little anecdote of when I was little: Whenever my mom, being the overprotective mother, would take us into Anchorage, whenever we had to go through high density areas, areas like Mountain View, Fairview or somewhere like that, my mom would — being the overprotective mother and sorta paranoid and lived in the sheltered, better community of Eagle River — would tell us, ‘Kids, put your heads down, we’re going through the bad neighborhood.’ Which can be a little justified, because once she did have a bullet go through her car driving through one of those neighborhoods. And I just hope that if this proposal is passed, in 10 to 15 years after all the shiny newness of these apartments have worn off, and all the cracks in the pavement have developed, I hope I’m not taking my children to Fire Lake Elementary and telling them to put their heads down.”
Cronan’s testimony drew a smattering of applause, which chairman Tyler Robinson cut off with a stern rebuke:
“I’d caution people to really think about what you’re responding to,” he scolded. “We represent the entire Municipality of Anchorage up here, and their assets, and every one of our neighborhoods. We’re here to talk about yours tonight; please be respectful of other people’s neighborhoods as well.”
About 30 members of the public attended the meeting and 19 testified against the proposal; none spoke in favor of the increased density.
In addition to sharing fears about crime, people testified higher density housing isn’t a good fit for the area due to its lack of proximity to bus routes, employment and the central business district.
Ward stressed there are no plans to sell the land at this time and the muni believes private developers are meeting current housing demand.
“Today we feel that, frankly, the private sector is taking care of the needs in Eagle River,” she said.
However, without a density change, land managers have said they don’t think the site is economical to build on — meaning it would be difficult if not impossible to sell.
“We felt it needed to reflect the overall need of the entire municipality,” she said.
She said the proposal in increase allowable density came about after the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU) approached the HLB about the potential to build a new 3 million gallon water storage tank on the “Carol Creek” site, a 92-acre parcel of land east of Fred Meyer. In order to allow AWWU to move forward with its plans, however, HLB needed to seek a change to the 2010 Chugiak-Eagle River Site Specific Plan.
In addition to asking for the tank allowance, however, planners also inserted language to increase the allowable density on the parcel from 125 units to 378 units. Earlier this year, the HLB board reaffirmed that decision and forwarded the proposal to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
While the water tank idea has drawn scant opposition — nobody who testified Monday spoke against it — the density change surely has. When asked by one commissioner why HLB needed to seek a density change instead of simply trying to make the AWWU plan work, Ward said land managers and municipal consultants Agnew::Beck deemed the changes appropriate.
“That’s a very good question,” she told commissioner Mitzi Barker. “We just felt like if you’re going to update a plan, it should have the most current information that was available, and that’s what our consultants felt was the most current information to update.”
Longtime Chugiak resident Kay Abrams said the 125 units allowed in the 2010 plan was already a compromise, and said she was upset the need for a new water tank was used as a pretext for trying to increase housing density.
“Using that as an excuse to come up with another compromise — that’s unforgiveable,” Abrams said, drawing a large round of applause.
Some people also expressed frustration with the public process. From the beginning, neighbors have complained the HLB has tried to obscure its true intent during the public process. Although municipal ombudsman Darrel Hess found the public process was correctly followed, Chugiak Community Council president Jake Horazdovsky said planners have been less than forthright during presentations to local community groups.
“In our meetings they didn’t come out and say, ‘Hey, we’re increasing the densities,’” he said.
In the end, commissioners agreed the density change is not needed, and approved an amendment to approve the HLB plan with the densities returned to what’s in the 2010 plan. Additionally, the commissioners asked HLB to add into the plan a parking area for Chugach State Park, which is adjacent to the property.
The commission will return to the issue at its Jan. 8 meeting. No public testimony will be taken at that time, and the commission is expected to approve the plan without the higher densities. After that, the plan will go before the full Anchorage Assembly.
Although the meeting appears to be a win for neighborhood residents, Sandy Quimby said she won’t rest until the issue is finally put to bed.
“I think you have to follow it through to the end.”
Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org