Landowners take city to court over Turnagain land

Nathaniel Herz

A case involving a hotly contested piece of Cook Inlet-facing property in Anchorage went to trial in Superior Court on Monday, with a decision expected after a judge hears arguments over decades-old deeds and the intent of a real estate developer and historic Alaska figure named Marvin "Muktuk" Marston.

The two-week trial pits the city against a group of property owners led by Matt Fink, a son of former Mayor Tom Fink, in a dispute that's been unfolding for the last six years.

The contested land, in the Turnagain neighborhood next to Lyn Ary Park, is less than three acres, said Bob Owens, the city attorney working on the case.

But it includes a stretch of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and has drawn interest from area residents who prize its trees and who have been using part of the property as a community garden. They have pushed city officials to argue the case and pressured Assembly members into rejecting a proposed settlement that would have allowed the property owners to buy the land.

The local residents "showered that garden with water, with concern, with effort," Owens said Monday in his opening statement before Superior Court Judge Andrew Guidi.

"It is a special place," he said.

The dispute has roots back to 1943, when Marston originally bought the property, and a large chunk of the surrounding area, from Lyrin Ary, a Russian immigrant and the park's namesake.

After Marston bought it, the land was split up and subdivided, but it's not entirely clear who maintained the title to the disputed property. The conflict now in court was set in motion by the 1964 earthquake, which collapsed the bluffs at the northern edge of the property.

The city maintains that the northern boundary of the subdivision only extended to the top of the bluffs, leaving the land that now slopes down to the water in the hands of a bank that took possession of the land after Marston. Another bank then sold the land to the city in the 1990s, after a fight over the construction of the Coastal Trail.

The lawyers for Fink and the other landowners say that the bank never owned the property at all. The title that Marston gave the bank didn't include the strip from the bluffs to the water, said Fink's attorney Michael Stehle.

And in any case, Stehle said, the bank was only holding the land as collateral for a loan it made to Marston.

One of the key pieces of evidence is a sworn statement from Judith Johanson, who said that she and her husband bought a lot in the subdivision in the early 1950s. She maintained Marston told them that the lot, which they bought in part for its views of the Sleeping Lady and the Port of Anchorage, went all the way down to Knik Arm.

Marston, she said in the deposition, "made it quite clear to us that no one could ever build in front of us, that our land went clear down to the main line of the tide -- below the tide flats."

By the time the dispute arose, Johanson may have been the only person still living who bought land from Marston, so her statements will be crucial.

"She is the only person, as far as I know, who was alive at the time of Muktuk Marston," Guidi said in court Monday.

The Coastal Trail itself is protected by an easement. But Cathy Gleason, the president of the Turnagain Community Council, said in an interview that she still feared what could happen to the adjacent land if Fink's group wins the case.

"They mow down all the trees, they plant grass, and they build large homes, certainly for the view," she said.

Fink declined to be interviewed, saying outside the courtroom that it had taken six years for the case to proceed to trial.

"I'd like to get through this," he said.

He was, however, called as the first witness, and testified that he'd purchased the land in 1991 with the intent of building a house there -- "my last home, hopefully," he said.

In a twist, Owens said that Mayor Dan Sullivan has removed himself from involvement with the case. Sullivan and Fink have been business partners in McGinley's Pub, a bar in downtown Anchorage.