Airport resurrects land-swap proposal

Point Woronzof Park in city tracts would be traded for dog park, Little Campbell Lake Park, snow dump.

Anchorage Daily NewsJune 2, 2012 

City planners and airport officials are again eying a West Anchorage park that includes a stretch of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for a proposed land swap that would allow the airport to expand.

It's not the first time the city and the airport have floated the idea of trading Point Woronzof Park for parcels of land owned by Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. After public outcry in 2008, the Anchorage Assembly shot down the notion of a land swap that would have allowed the airport to build a new runway and alter the Coastal Trail.

An updated version of the proposal is included in the city's West Anchorage District Plan and goes before the Assembly for a public hearing Tuesday night. If approved, removing the area's designation as parkland could go before voters as early as April 2013.

The proposed swap is just one of many land use suggestions in the hundreds of pages in the plan but at this point it is the most controversial, city planners say. Opponents to the land trade say it would ruin the popular Coastal Trail and set a bad precedent for the city's parks.

The plan sets up a familiar Anchorage land argument: economic interests vs. quality of life.

According to the draft plan, the city would get Little Campbell Lake Park, Connors Lake Dog Park and a snow dump the city now rents from the airport. The airport would get Point Woronzof Park, a block of coastal land south of the popular Point Woronzof overlook and the nearby sewage treatment plant. And while Airport Manager John Parrott said in 2008 the land would be used to build a second north-south runway, he now says the airport has no specific plan for development there.

In fact, the airport doesn't currently need another runway and has other priorities, Parrott said. Still, airport expansion is inevitable in the long term, and expanding to the west -- whether for a cargo-sorting facility or de-icing facility or a runway -- would mean not building to the south, where there are more homes close to undeveloped airport property, he said.

"We're the biggest single thing in West Anchorage," Parrott said. "Whatever the airport needs to develop to support the aviation industry, on a very general level, it seems reasonable to try to do that development away from the residential areas."

Parrott said it's far too early in the process to say what the airport would do with the Woronzof Park land -- if it gets it. The heavily used Coastal Trail might change, but it won't go away, the airport manager said.

"The airport is committed to a continuous, permanent Coast Trail," Parrott said.

But would the trail be something more hemmed in by fences or even pass through a tunnel as suggested in 2008? Is the airport committed to a trail of the same quality?

"I think that's a subjective question that's very difficult to answer," Parrott said. "Because what may be quality to you may not be quality to me. And so that's something that would be decided in that public process of whatever the development might be."

JOBS VS. PARKS?

One of every 10 jobs in Anchorage is connected with the airport, said airport spokeswoman Margaret Tyler. The city also has more parkland per resident than any other U.S. city, Tyler and Parrott said.

"But how much is enough in order to support the lifestyle you want to have and you want your kids to have and your neighbors to have?" Tyler said. "Is it not worthwhile to invest in this proven economic structure?"

"It's a huge economic engine," Parrott said.

Cathy Gleason, president of the Turnagain Community Council and a vocal opponent of the land-swap proposal, said the West Anchorage District Plan does not reflect the public's opinion. Anchorage residents have historically been more in favor of the higher quality of life associated with the trail than with the airport's expansion needs, she said.

The Coastal Trail is recognized as "a premier urban wilderness area" and Woronzof Park as "the gem of the Coastal Trail system," Gleason said. Its qualities -- sea views, wilderness viewing opportunities and forested stretches among them -- make it different from other trails, she said.

"It's a beautifully natural wooded area that creates a really good buffer between existing high-impact airport operations and that coastal experience you get through that area," Gleason said. "The public has said, 'No, there's a lot more to the existing Coastal Trail and that dedicated parkland than just a continuous trail.' "

Gleason said that the city should be exploring other options if it needs to secure the airport land it wants, including Little Campbell Lake Park to the south and adjacent to Kincaid Park, and Connors Lake Dog Park to the east. Planners should be talking to the Federal Aviation Administration about getting the land donated and designated for conservation easements, Gleason said.

Gleason would like to see a task force set up to find a way to give the city the parcels and keep Woronzof Park, she said. That's something Parrott said is impossible under the FAA's rules, which do not allow land giveaways and only allow land swaps if it's an even trade.

"That's being pretty narrow-minded at this point," said Gleason.

The airport and city officials have not gotten the whole story about the easement idea and haven't talked to Alaska's two U.S. senators about negotiating with the FAA, she said.

'STILL GOING TO BE THERE'

It's unlikely that the airport would simply donate the land to the city and not take Woronzof Park, at least according to the information the city has gotten so far from the airport, said the city's senior planner, Thede Tobish, who worked on the plan. Under the city's current arrangement for the park, the dog park and the snow dump, the airport could decide it wants that land for something else and take it back, Tobish said.

"(The public) doesn't realize that many of these areas that they use every day aren't owned by the city, and they could go away, like that," Tobish said, snapping his fingers. "You can't assume that these are going to be permanent public places."

A land swap for Woronzof Park is the best way for the city to preserve those public places it doesn't own and still have a decent Coastal Trail through the 0.65 miles that might be affected, Tobish said.

"The municipality would far prefer, as the public would, to retain the trail right where it is, but given the long-term possibilities on the horizon, we want to be prepared and set a structure for retaining the trail. And unfortunately the land trade appears to be the optimum approach."

"At some point we have to work with what we have."

Other possible impacts to the trail could come from coastal erosion to the north of the airport and a possible expansion of the Anchorage Water and Wastewater treatment facility to the west, Tobish said. Even while facing any one of those scenarios, the city plans to maintain a trail of the same quality, Tobish said. That means the planners intend to keep the trail continuous, permanent and surrounded by greenery, he said.

"It's a very important issue," Tobish said. "I use that trail almost every day, so I don't like the idea of the trail changing, necessarily. But I have confidence that if it did, it's still going to be there."

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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