'Felony Flats' on Parks Highway to give way to road widening

mtheriault@adn.comOctober 13, 2012 

MEADOW LAKES -- Drive north to Mile 49 of the Parks Highway, where the sprawl of Wasilla begins to ebb, and you'll see it: a jumbled collection of dwellings from dressing-room-size shacks with peeling paint to cheerful log-hewn cabins with snowshoes hanging over the door, strung along a bleak lot.

Most days a guy sells Bunny Boots in the parking lot. Sundry items -- from rain-soaked dolls to old cars -- are also on offer.

Now the roadside cabins, known as "Felony Flats" or the "Mile 49 Cabins" in Alaska State Trooper dispatches, are going away.

The Alaska State Department of Transportation is negotiating with the owner to buy the strip of land the cabins sit on as part of a plan to expand the highway from two to four lanes. Construction is slated to begin in 2014. The 40 foundation-free structures are all for sale.

Just a handful of tenants remain.

Neighbors say the place is blighted and crime-ridden and they will not be sorry to see it go. But the people who live there say the cabins' reputation isn't entirely deserved and the place has sheltered some of the lowest-income Valley residents for years.

Twana Cooper is an on-site manager who has lived in one of the few permanent dwellings on the property with her five children for nearly a decade, an office painted with scenes of polar bears, whales and purple mountain vistas. The family keeps a kennel of sled dogs out front.

The cabins aren't a bad place to live, she said. People like the nearby Tesoro, liquor store, Three Bears grocery store and other amenities.

"It's fine here," she said with a shrug.

No one remembers exactly when the string of cabins appeared, just that they seemed to sprout up, one by one, starting at least 15 years ago. They have long rented for some of the lowest prices in the valley. Recent rates were $400 to $800 a month, depending on the size of the cabin.

Rumors that the cabins might be moved to another property in Big Lake are untrue. They are for sale at prices ranging from $5,000 to $20,000.

"They'll sell eventually," she said.

The plan is to have them gone by July 2013, said Mike Stefan Sr., whose son Mike Stefan Jr. is listed as the primary shareholder of the limited liability corporation that owns the 16 acres of land the state wants to buy.

The cabins sit on about three acres along the highway.

The DOT won't say how much they are paying for the land because negotiations are ongoing. Jan Richardson, who owns an RV park across the road, said she'd been approached about possibly buying some of the cabins. She declined.

"I was actually just tickled they weren't going to be over there," she said.

On a recent morning most of the cabins sat empty of their former residents. Nothing but an overturned chair and poker chips remained scattered across the floor of one.

Grass grew high between water tanks painted with Alaskana scenes of grizzly bears.

A state DOT relocation agent has been helping tenants find new housing. Federal funding pays a portion of the rent for 42 months to people displaced by the project, said DOT right-of-way expert Lynda Hummel. At least 20 people have been resettled into accommodations that must include running water, a kitchen and heat, she said.

Phil Cummings is one of the few remaining residents. He says he'll move out of his weathered A-frame any day -- his barbecue grill is already packed up and ready to go.

A former North Slope camp cook who says he moved to the Valley to get away from a drug addiction in Anchorage, Cummings has lived in his cabin for almost 10 years.

His simple room has a futon, a TV, a loft, a refrigerator and a stove but no running water. Some of his heat comes from kerosene. He uses a honeybucket.

He knows some people revile the cabins. He's heard them called crack shacks. Scumville Row.

"I've heard all the nasty names," he says.

Cummings says his neighbors in the cabins were often just trying to get by on a fixed Social Security or disability income like him. But others were there to do and deal drugs.

He says he's managed to live at the cabins for so long because he made a point not to get to know his neighbors. One man known as "The General" tried to run him over with a pickup truck, he said.

Police blotters and trooper dispatches have long been dotted with accounts of visits to the Mile 49 cabins -- for assaults, "the usual human drama stories," theft, drugs, alcohol and at least one homicide," said trooper Lt. Robert French, who has worked in the area since 1996.

The area improved when a trooper detachment went in less than a quarter-mile away. About the same time a go-go bar known variously as the Dead Dog Saloon and Borealis Beach Club closed.

That helped too, French said.

Still, the cabins have remained the site of incidents of brutal violence.

In 2010 Susanna Braden, a 43-year-old mother of four from Toksook Bay, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer in Phil Cummings' cabin by Andrew Victor Thomas, a man her family said she was trying to leave.

Cummings was in Talkeetna at the time, according to a court affidavit.

Thomas was convicted of first-degree murder this year. Cummings said he'd rather not talk about the murder.

There are things he says he will miss about the cabins: "walkabouts" in the nearby woods with his dog, grilling in the parking lot in the summertime.

"I don't think the reputation is deserved," he said.

He, for one, will be sad to see the place go.

 

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