Water utility prepares for Birchwood expansion

Friday, August 18, 2017 - 12:07
  • A sign advertises new housing at Powder Reserve on August 11, 2017. Large infrastructure improvements are necessary to support major future developments in the area, according to local utility managers. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Power lines run through Birchwood on August 11, 2017. Large water and sewer improvements are necessary to support major future developments in the area, according to local utility managers. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Preparing for a flood of future development, a local utility is laying the groundwork for new water and sewer lines in Birchwood.

The announcement triggered a wave of community concern at an Aug. 9 Birchwood Community Council meeting, where local homeowners talked about looming property assessments and population growth.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of ‘if,’ I think it’s a matter of ‘when,’” said council president Kevin McNamara at the Wednesday evening meeting at the Beach Lake Chalet.

The infrastructure expansion – which would cause steep future connection costs for area homeowners – is necessary to support up to 1,500 units of new housing slated for construction at Powder Reserve, according to the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility. The landowner, Eklutna, Inc. agreed to develop chunks of the subdivision as part of a January 2017 legal settlement with the Municipality of Anchorage; plans call for a combination of single-family homes and multi-unit, high-density housing, according to AWWU.

Construction relies on a far-reaching infrastructure expansion project, AWWU managers said.

“Fifteen hundred homes in that area is a significant impact in population,” said Brian Baus, a capital projects manager at AWWU. “For our system to handle something that big, we need more than the standard water distribution pipe and sewer pipe you see in a residential street.”

The proposed Powder Reserve development would require a new sewer trunk system and water transmission line, but that kind of infrastructure installation requires “pretty significant investments, and it’s not standard for private development to put that kind of infrastructure in,” Baus said.

Instead, he said, Anchorage municipal code includes processes for building that new infrastructure through improvement district programs — district residents can approve the improvements by vote, then pay for their share of the benefit when they eventually connect to the system. The proposed improvement districts in Birchwood would stretch beyond the boundaries of Powder Reserve, affecting existing homeowners on the west side of the Glenn Highway between Eklutna Park Drive and Chugiak High School, according to AWWU.

There are two ways to initiate the improvement district process: Either the Anchorage Assembly can pass a resolution, or half of area property owners can sign a petition requesting the improvement, according to the utility. The process next involves a scoping and cost estimate process, then a vote of local property owners, Baus said. It’s all still in the early stages.

“It’s really just, how do we get to the vote?” Baus said. “Those are the conversations that are happening right now.”

Among Birchwood residents, the conversation is just beginning. The local community council, which usually meets at the ski chalet on South Birchwood Loop, is searching for a larger meeting space in advance of its September meeting, where the proposed improvement districts are expected to be the only topics on the agenda.

“Our expectation is we’re going to have a large crowd, so that’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to find a larger facility to meet,” McNamara said at the Aug. 9 BCCC meeting.

The discussion around the proposed improvement districts has a direct influence over any ensuing development, according to AWWU. If area residents vote against the new districts, Baus said, Eklutna would have to pursue any major infrastructure development on its own.

Birchwood residents pondered the options at their August council meeting. The prospect of future utility hookup assessments was one thing; the idea of a large new neighborhood housing development was another.

The small group of locals at the meeting had some big questions. Residents talked about the meeting coming up in September, the bucolic, uncrowded Birchwood they loved.

“If we don’t get on the ball, we’re going to be swallowed,” said Birchwood resident Bobbi Wells. “We have something that hasn’t been destroyed yet: I’d like to keep it.”

The next meeting on the infrastructure issue is scheduled to take place Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Chugiak-Eagle River Senior Center at 22424 Birchwood Loop Rd. For more information, visit communitycouncils.org.

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected].

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