Assembly puts off vote on proposed airport land swap

Casey Grove
Kevin Powell

Dozens of Anchorage residents voiced opposition at Tuesday night's Assembly meeting to a city- and airport-backed proposal to trade a piece of parkland, through which the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail passes, to the airport.

In return for Point Woronzof Park, the city would get two other public parks the airport owns at Little Campbell Lake and Connor's Lake and a snow dump. City planners say the land swap is the best-known option to secure use of those parks, which they do not own, and maintain a continuous Coastal Trail. It's just one land-use recommendation in the hundreds of pages of the West Anchorage District Plan before the Assembly.

If approved, the plan would open the possibility of a citizen vote that could allow swapping the land. Airport officials have said in the past they would use the land for a new runway but now don't have a specific plan for it.

The draft plan went before the Assembly on Tuesday. But Chair Ernie Hall, taking the recommendation of Assembly Member Debbie Ossiander, put off a vote on the plan.

"I think September will be better, because people are around more, rather than in the middle of summer," Ossiander said.

Outside the Assembly Chambers, the sky was sunny, temperature in the 60s.

"We'll have to use 'Robert's Rules of Sunshine' and end the meeting early," said Hall, jokingly referring to the rules that govern Assembly meetings.

Despite the sunny weather, trail users and land swap opponents showed up in force to give testimony and formed a line just before 7 p.m. that stretched to the back of the Assembly chambers. Airport Manager John Parrott looked on while person after person blasted the idea.

One man voiced his support for the plan.

Most echoed the sentiments of the trail's namesake, former Gov. Tony Knowles, who asked the Assembly to clarify an earlier designation for Point Woronzof Park as permanent parkland, remove the possibility of it being included in a swap, and appoint a task force to deal with the other parks.

Thousands of people have come out against similar land-swap plans in the past, each time resulting in the land again being deemed off-limits for an exchange, Knowles said.

"I don't believe that now is the time to renege on that promise to the municipality and its citizens," Knowles said.

Opponents to the swap say it would set bad precedent for Anchorage's parks and that the airport hasn't said enough about its intentions to justify turning over the parkland.

"We don't know what the airport wants to do, and they won't even tell us. And if they can't tell us, we shouldn't go forward with such a monumental decision," said Kevin Harun, one of those who testified Tuesday.

Kimberly Holdiman said she was too young, born in 1994, to know much about the past battles to save Point Woronzof Park. But Holdiman said she's spent enough time on the trail and at the park, which include some of Anchorage's only walkable beach, to know it's worth keeping as a park.

"There's nothing in my mind that could compensate for the loss and the memories that I have of growing up there," Holdiman said.

Ossiander said the plan was a well-written document that sets up a frank discussion about land-use issues in Anchorage, including the airport-municipality land swap idea.

"I read it, frankly, as, 'Let's sit down to talk to figure out the airport's issues.' But it's not being interpreted like that by a lot of people," Ossiander said. "The plan talks a lot about what we want from the airport. And it seems like there's a desire to sit down and talk, is how I read it."

Parrott, the airport manager, waited until everyone else had spoken before offering his point of view to the Assembly: Look at the plan as the beginning of a discussion aimed at resolving the land-use conflicts.

The airport is mandated to develop its land for the benefit of the aviation industry, and can do so without the plan or the city's blessing, Parrott said.

"The airport needs to plan ahead and not wait for the need to arise before we address it," he said. "In an ideal world, the airport and the community would be separated by a significant distance, and there would be unlimited parkland within walking distance of every house. That's not the case in Anchorage, so we need to look for other solutions."

Assembly member Harriet Drummond said the plan is likely headed for work sessions and several amendments. The West Anchorage District Plan will be back before the Assembly at its July 10 meeting.

Anchorage Daily News