Butte residents balk at taxes from erosion district

zhollander@adn.comAugust 7, 2013 

Matanuska River house threatened

House along Matanuska River on Old Glenn Highway near Palmer is threatened as the banks of the river erode underneath it on Wednesday, June 19, 2013.

MARC LESTER — Anchorage Daily News Buy Photo

— Mat-Su Borough officials hoped to spend a good chunk of a $2.5 million grant from the Alaska Legislature shoring up a failing rock barrier along a flood-ravaged section of Matanuska River where a home dropped into the water last fall.

But first they needed local residents to agree to a new taxpayer service area.

They didn't.

On Tuesday night, dozens of frustrated Butte residents implored the Mat-Su Borough Assembly to kill a proposal that would have asked local property owners to approve a new taxing district to pay for flood and erosion control along the Matanuska.

The assembly unanimously voted to yank the item from the Oct. 1 ballot.

Many residents living within the proposed area testified that their homes weren't immediately threatened. They lived far from the river, or on river- resistant bedrock.

William Nilsson said he researched his property before he bought it, checking territorial records and geological samples to make sure he was safe from erosion.

"Include people (in the service area) in actual danger of losing property," Nilsson said. "I feel like I made good decisions and if this goes through I'm going to be punished for it."

The service area proposal arose from near-record floods last September that forced evacuations in Talkeetna and tore through riverfront properties along the Matanuska River.

A half-dozen homes in Sutton fell into the river or remain threatened. About a dozen homes on the Matanuska along the Old Glenn Highway in the Butte flooded or fell in the river.

It was those Butte property owners, about 13 in all, who asked the borough to fix the nearly 30-year-old section of revetment, or riverfront riprap, along the highway.

But the service area proposed for the repairs would have covered 115 properties from the Matanuska River Bridge to Bodenburg Loop Road. Landowners would be expected to tack onto their existing tax bills more than $300 for every $100,000 of assessed property value.

Meanwhile, people living in an existing service area in Circle View and Stampede Estates subdivisions balked at the addition of a new taxing area when they already pay higher taxes for river dikes that successfully safeguarded their homes last fall.

Adding Circle View into the new area would add a heavy financial burden without any benefits, said resident Claire Mothershead.

"We're getting a double whammy," Mothershead said.

Some residents at the meeting also pointed out that the borough owns some of the property located in the proposed service area. But officials say as a second-class borough with restrictions on spending, they lack the authority to use public money protecting private property.

Now what?

Officials say the borough will still find ways to spend the state money, but fixing that riprap liner built in 1985 to hold back the river along the Old Glenn just got a lot more complicated.

"We'll still continue to work and find ways to help these folks out but we don't have as easy a way to get to that answer as we could with a service area," Borough Manager John Moosey said Wednesday.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, secured the money for the borough. Stoltze, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, didn't return a call for comment Wednesday. Aide Darrell Breese said the grant and the service area are separate issues. The money is simply meant to address flooding and erosion, mostly in the Matanuska River, Breese said.

The borough just this week received the grant agreement from the state spelling out the terms.

Moosey said he's earmarked $500,000 to address flood-related problems in the Talkeetna and Willow areas. An existing service area in Talkeetna will help channel that money.

Staffers are putting together requests for plans to protect riverfront properties in the Sutton and Maud Road areas, Moosey said.

The grant money won't go directly toward buying out flood-damaged or threatened homes, he said. But it could help defray the costs of a Natural Resources Conservation Service program that pays three-quarters of that cost.

It's possible the money could also pay to dredge the river to steer it away from homes -- provided the gravel is used for another public project, like at the Palmer Airport, the borough attorney said Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Transportation is currently repairing a 475-foot section of flood-control riprap along the Old Glenn in the area of contention now, according to spokesman Rick Feller.

The state no longer maintains that riverfront revetment, Feller said. Protecting the highway is the only area of the state's responsibility in that corridor.

"As the Matanuska River or other rivers across the state immediately threaten our facilities and start impinging upon our right-of-way, that's really when we can start taking action," he said.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or (907) 352-6705.

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