Wasilla's aesthetic quality key in power line debate

Lisa Demer

WASILLA -- A proposed new high-voltage power line along a busy stretch of the Parks Highway through Wasilla is drawing fierce opposition with some residents, business owners and the city planner arguing it would mar the view and could hurt retailers, restaurants and other businesses.

Matanuska Electric Association is asking for city approval to run a transmission line along poles 70- to 100-feet tall between two existing power substations. The line would be about six miles long, half of that in the city limits within a 100-foot right of way.

MEA engineers say the power line is needed to improve reliability, reduce down time during power outages and add the ability to serve more customers in a fast-growing part of the state.

The utility made its case Tuesday night to the Wasilla Planning Commission before a crowd of a few dozen people, a number of whom testified against the project. The commission made no decision on Tuesday but will take up the matter again May 21.

"This is probably the biggest decision that the planning commission will make that affects the city as a whole," planner Tina Crawford said.

Most actions just affect a single business. A new power line would affect utility customers, numerous businesses, residents who live above the Parks Highway and just about everyone who drives that part of the Parks Highway -- some 31,000 on average every day, according to the state Department of Transportation.

"Tourists come to Alaska to view the beauty and wildlife -- not 80-feet-tall transmission lines that obscure the scenic mountain vistas," Crawford's report to the commission said.

Reflecting another common perspective of the route, MEA spokesman Kevin Brown said in an interview, "I've never encountered too many people who have talked about the awesome scenic beauty of the Parks Highway corridor."

MEA considered a number of possibilities to the north or south before settling on the route that would be shortest, cheapest and impact the fewest people and businesses, said Dan Beardsley, a consultant for MEA with the utility engineering firm Dryden & LaRue.

When the Matanuska Valley was originally developed, no utility corridors were carved out, which makes it hard to find a route that's not disruptive, he told the commission.

Burying the line may seem like a solution, but high voltage transmission lines are rarely put underground because of the high initial cost and high maintenance expenses, MEA says. MEA estimates that its proposed 6.4-mile power line, with 10 to 12 poles per mile, would cost just under $10 million. A buried line along that route would cost more than $40 million to build, according to MEA's estimate.

A number of people argued that a big power line would make Wasilla less attractive. No one at the meeting countered that the city is more known for strip malls and big box stores than visually pleasing aesthetics.

Indeed, the power line would be erected along a stretch of highway that's little developed and contains expansive views. While there are light poles along the highway, most aren't very tall and the distribution power lines are mainly buried.

The city is committed to aesthetics even if that wasn't always the case, said Mayor Verne Rupright.

"It's never too late to get a handle on it and get it done right," Rupright said Wednesday. The city got rid of junkyards, bought property, and cleaned up. "It's actually a very pleasant little place once you get off the highway."

A power line along the Parks Highway conflicts with the city's 2011 comprehensive plan, the city's land-use code and goals set by the City Council, Crawford concluded in her Planning Department report. The packet on the MEA proposal topped 700 pages.

"The over-arching theme of all of these policies is that City residents want an attractive community to live, work, and shop that offers a high quality of life," the executive summary said.

While Wasilla's population increased 47 percent between 2000 and 2012, its sales tax revenues shot up more than 200 percent, according to MEA's presentation on Tuesday. And in that sense, a new power line providing more reliable electricity could support Wasilla's No. 1 goal in its comprehensive plan, to remain "the region's major commercial center," MEA says,

Rupright said he thought MEA last year had agreed to a different, longer route to the north. The problem with the highway route, he said, is that it "takes in Pioneer Peak, the Chugach and everything that sweeps back down the valley toward Anchorage. That is just a gorgeous view and everybody knows it."

MEA says a north route along Bogard Road would cost millions more and also could squeeze some people from their homes, and that is something it wants to avoid.

John Murphy, one of several with view property along Naomi Avenue who testified, predicted that property values along the highway corridor would plummet.

"We're going to look like China or Japan or some other country," he said.

Kendall Ford, with its striking glass-faced building perched above the highway, could lose car sales with a power line strung across the front, Dean Pape of Kendall Automative Group told the commission. The dealership, which doesn't own the land, would get no compensation, he said. MEA never even approached Kendall.

The power line would cross the highway and go behind Creekside Plaza. Floyd Pedersen, the California-based plaza owner, said he might have trouble getting tenants if the power line went in there. He told commission the cost to the plaza and nearby businesses could be $5 million.

Commission members indicated they may push MEA to keep working on a less objectionable route.

Joe Griffith, MEA's general manager, said he was open to talks, but the utility already had done that.

Whatever the commission decides can be appealed to a hearing officer, and then the courts, the city says.


Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.



Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on