With a nudge from Girdwood, Chugiak-Eagle River residents exploring cemetery options

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 12:37

Residents living north of Anchorage have long yearned for a permanent home in Chugiak-Eagle River. Now, plans for a local cemetery are being resurrected thanks to progress in Girdwood at the southern end of the Municipality of Anchorage.

According to several people familiar with the discussions, the hope is to combine the two communities’ work in an attempt to bring a pair of new cemeteries to a municipality rapidly running out of gravesites.

“I’d like to figure out a way to join our efforts since we’re both working toward building cemeteries in our community,” said Girdwood’s Tommy O’Malley, who has led the four-year effort to bring a cemetery to the small community about 20 miles south of Anchorage. “I think there’s ways to make that happen.”

The Birchwood Community Council recently added a request to the proposed Municipality of Anchorage fiscal year 2019 capital budget for support of cemeteries in Eagle River and Girdwood. The request asks the Heritage Land Bank and the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department to review their landholdings to see what might be appropriate for a cemetery in Chugiak-Eagle River.

Heritage Land Bank director Robin Ward said she’s very supportive of the idea, and has already begun “very preliminary” work to identify possible HLB land in the area that could be used for a cemetery.

“We’re ready to sit down and start looking at parcels,” Ward said Monday.

On the heels of the Birchwood request, the neighboring Chugiak Community Council recently passed a resolution asking for other area councils to join them in forming a cemetery committee made up of representatives from area councils. There are six community council areas in Chugiak-Eagle River: Chugiak, Eagle River, Birchwood, South Fork, Eagle River Valley and Eklutna Valley.

The renewed push has been spurred by progress on a Girdwood cemetery, which is much further along in the planning phase but still needs help with funding. That’s where Chugiak-Eagle River fit into the equation.

The Girdwood Valley Board of Supervisors has already spent nearly $100,000 for its own cemetery after passing a local property tax assessment to support the project. The HLB — which manages municipal landholdings — provided land off Crow Creek Road for the location, and the board now hopes to partner with Chugiak-Eagle River to secure a municipal bond to fund both projects. The idea is that a bond could be used to fund both the final phase of the Girdwood cemetery as well as planning and development of an Chugiak-Eagle River area cemetery.

Chugiak’s Debbie Ossiander said the idea of building a cemetery in the community is nothing new, and the area’s comprehensive plan calls for a facility to be built in Chugiak-Eagle River at some point.

“The whole thing first came up when I was on the assembly,” said Ossiander, a former Anchorage Assembly member who now serves on the Birchwood Community Council.

The idea has gained little traction over the years due to a lack of sustained interest, she said, but recent conversations with O’Malley have brought renewed attention to the issue.

“His thinking is if we could get Chugiak-Eagle River working with Girdwood there’s a greater chance of a bond passage or approval of funding,” Ossiander said.

There is no timetable for any Chugiak-Eagle River proposal or any bond package. However, Girdwood is planning a site visit for its cemetery on Oct. 29 with an eye on developing the property in the next couple years. O’Malley said the site visit will help Girdwood’s consultant get an idea of the cost to complete the project. So far, he said, Girdwood has spent nearly $100,000 on environmental studies and preliminary design work.

The next step would be to pass a municipal-wide bond. Having both conservative Eagle River and left-leaning Girdwood residents find common ground on a bond package, O’Malley said, would give the effort a boost.

“I think politically, joining an effort with (Chugiak-Eagle River) would be an advantage,” he said.

But it’s not just a Chugiak-Eagle River or Girdwood issue. Ward said the municipal cemetery in Anchorage is running out of room and is expected to be full in a decade or two. She thinks the idea of creating cemeteries in both communities at roughly the same time makes a lot of sense.

“If we go out for a cemetery bond in the future it would be nice if we could bond both,” she said.

Although the discussions remain in the preliminary phase, Ward said HLB is enthusiastic about trying to help Chugiak-Eagle River find a cemetery site.

“Absolutely,” she said. “We know that the Anchorage Cemetery is going to run out of room. They expect that will happen in the next 10 to 20 years and, frankly, we don’t have land available in Anchorage.”

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call 257-4274

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