Assembly OK’s vote on Birchwood water expansion

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 14:52

“What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?”

“You ask a glass of water.”

— “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Plans to build a new water transmission line through Birchwood will move forward after the Anchorage Assembly voted Thursday to reject locals’ concerns about the potential for the planned 24-inch pipeline to negatively impact the neighborhood.

The assembly’s actions came after more than two hours of debate on the topic, which drew outright opposition from 16 of the 19 people who spoke during public testimony. One by one, Eagle River and Birchwood residents asked for a delay in the process in order to address concerns about possible future property assessments, their belief the water line conflicts the area’s comprehensive plan and a feeling the public process has been rushed through.

Those arguments were rejected by the assembly, whose members said municipal water managers have worked with Birchwood residents to allay fears about the project.

“I think we’ve done our best to try and mitigate and address those concerns,” said assembly member Amy Demboski, a Chugiak resident.

The Birchwood Community Council has taken an active role in fighting the project, which the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility (AWWU) says is needed both to allow for Eklutna Inc. to develop a new 1,400-home housing development and for the muni add much-needed redundancy and capacity to the overall municipal water system. The community council has formed a task force to deal with the issue, which first came before it in August.

Task force chair Gretchen Wehmhoff started the meeting by evoking the opening of the Douglas Adams novel “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which the protagonist must face the reality that aliens are about to demolish the Earth in order to build a “hyperspace bypass.” Wehmhoff compared the process of AWWU trying to build a water line through Birchwood to the book’s opening, saying locals haven’t had enough time to study the issue.

“It wasn’t until August that the Birchwood Community Council heard about it,” she said.

In addition to what she said was a sped-up process, Wehmhoff said residents are worried they’ll be forced to pay for the transmission line — despite a municipal resolution introduced Thursday that city officials said ensures that won’t happen. Wehmhoff said the assurances aren’t good enough.

“What we’re concerned about is that even if those assessments aren’t levied, they’re still attached to the property,” she said.

She also questioned whether the development of the new transmission line is in keeping with the comprehensive plan, which prohibits new water and sewer lines being built to low-density neighborhoods in the area.

“If we don’t honor our comp plans, we’re in trouble,” she said.

Wehmhoff’s arguments were echoed in one form or another by those who spoke after her, including former assembly member Debbie Ossiander. Ossiander was extremely active in creating the comprehensive plan, which she thinks isn’t being followed.

“I have to tell you, when I read this I got angry,” she said.

Ossiander asked for more time to discuss the issue.

“We need as a city to do a lot more research,” she said.

Jim Cantor argued that building the line will eventually diminish the rural character of the neighborhood, which is made up primarily of single-family homes on large lots.

“As soon as the pipe crosses the rural land then you have the potential and almost the certainty of changing that to non-rural land,” he said.

One by one, municipal officials and assembly members themselves offered rebuttals to the Birchwood residents’ concerns about the transmission line — which can’t even be accessed by residential properties without the addition of lateral lines.

On the biggest question — the idea locals will have to pay for a pipeline they won’t be using — AWWU general manager Brad Jokela said that’s simply not the case.

“I would say the opposite is probably true,” he said.

In fact, an ordinance brought forward Thursday was created specifically to prohibit the creation of “water distribution or lateral improvement districts” in low-density areas of Birchwood. In addition, if a property owner was want to connect, the ordinance says the municipality cannot even take payment for a water or sewer assessment until connection; the ordinance adds the additional protection of adding a copy of the ordinance recorded on each affected property’s title.

“We are saying we are not going to levy these assessments unless you ask,” said municipal attorney Bill Falsey, who began his remarks on the subject by quoting from the cover of Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide” series:

“Don’t panic,” he said.

Falsey said the comprehensive plan appears to contradict itself by both calling for Powder Ridge to be developed but also saying no water or sewer can come into low-density areas.

“How do we reconcile those two things?” he asked.

Falsey said municipal officials have gone out of their way to try and mitigate impacts to local residents.

“We’ve done our level best,” he said, while noting engineers say the route through Birchwood is the most favorable.

Both Eklutna and the muni have wanted Powder Ridge to be developed for years, but the neighborhood can’t be built until it gets enough water, said Jokela, who noted the muni’s existing water system often nears capacity.

“Frankly, I and our engineers are not comfortable with allowing a single-source water supply on an area that’s going to have 1,400 units,” he said.

The new line will allow for “redundancy,” which helps all users in the event of natural disasters or periods of high demand, he said.

“The intent is to make sure we have redundancy and dual sources of supply,” he said.

As to the issue of public process, the assembly was only being asked to allow for property owners to vote on the creation of a “Water Transmission Improvement District,” which means residents still have ample time and opportunity to have their voices heard, said East Anchorage representative Christopher Constant.

“August is a long time for public debate,” he said, pointing to Demboski’s support of moving forward as evidence the process hasn’t left locals without a voice.

In fact, the issue has been a near-constant source of discussion at the community council, which even moved one of its meetings this fall to a larger venue to facilitate discussion.

In fact, Demboski indicated the public process may have hurt in this case by spreading misinformation about locals potentially being hit with massive levies against their property.

“I’m going to say this as I look at community council members: One of my greatest challenges and disappointments is to get phone calls from people saying, ‘The community council said I’m going to have a lien on my property,’” she said.

She also said the idea of the water line being “rushed through” was inaccurate.

“I want to tell you, you guys knew about this five months before the assembly did,” she said.

Finally, Demboski admonished council members for casting Eklutna Inc. as somehow working against the will of the community.

“I want to remind the council, one of your members is Eklutna,” she said. “They have been and continue to be one of the best neighbors, one of the best community members in our district. I’m not going to sit by and relegate them to some subservient status because they want to develop their own property.”

She also pointed out the benefit to all taxpayers of adding new housing, which is expected to add $8 million yearly to municipal tax rolls.

In the end, the assembly passed one ordinance and two resolutions on the subject: an ordinance prohibiting the creation of the new distribution or lateral improvement districts; a resolution to allow for property owners to vote to create a new proposed Sanitary Sewer Trunk Improvement District (which doesn’t run through the same area and which nobody Thursday spoke against); and the original resolution to allow property owners — of which Eklutna and the municipality make up a majority — to vote on the creation of the new water transmission district. The first two measures passed unanimously, with the third passing 10-1, with Suzanne LaFrance expressing a desire to give more time for consideration.

The next step will be for property owners to vote, at which time the matter will return to the assembly.

After the lengthy debate, the assembly took a five-minute break when one member indicated a need to drink a glass of water.

Towels were not discussed.

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