Railroad neighbors object to cost, timing of new land use policy

Nathaniel Herz
Bill Roth

A group of South Anchorage residents is trying to slow an effort by the Alaska Railroad to charge property owners hundreds of dollars for using land near the tracks, and potentially limit their access.

Residents of the Oceanview neighborhood voted 19 to 0 at a community council meeting last week to contact the railroad's board with concerns that people living along the tracks had not had been given adequate notice of a November meeting where a new permitting program could be approved.

"We just want an opportunity to let the public know this is happening," said Steve Beardsley, the community council president. "I want an opportunity to complain, or to back them up."

The railroad says it's trying to combat what it says are increasing risks from the use of its right of way -- the strip of land parallel to the tracks that typically extends 100 feet in both directions. It says that landowners have moved their yards, gardens and sheds closer and closer to the tracks over the railroad's 100 years of existence.

It's a problem that has "continued to grow, and grow, and grow, and has gotten to the point where we can't ignore it any more, out of a safety necessity," said Tim Sullivan, a railroad spokesman.

The new policy has been in the works for the past two years, and was modified from an earlier version to reflect feedback from residents, Sullivan said. The changes include a revised fee structure, and a shift away from provisions that were aimed at forcing neighbors out of the right of way altogether.

The move wasn't driven by any single event, Sullivan added. "It's just an observational issue," he said.

The policy would affect residents along the railroad's whole corridor -- not just those in South Anchorage. That includes neighborhoods like Spenard and South Addition in the city, as well as areas north and south of Anchorage like Talkeetna and the Portage Valley.

So far, though, Oceanview residents appear to be the most outspoken in their objections -- which appears to be because they were the first to learn of the proposed change.

Beardsley, the community council president, said he was sympathetic to the railroad's safety concerns. But he and others were critical of what they characterized as inadequate public notice, and the costs of the new permitting program.

People who want to use land in the right of way will have to pay an application fee of $250, plus a minimum annual fee of $250 that would rise if a property owner uses more than 1,000 square feet of railroad property.

The new policy would also bar uses that extend more than 30 feet into the right of way.

The fees have drawn questions about whether the railroad was using the program as a revenue generator. It saw a $45 million drop in its finances over the last two years, and earlier this year eliminated 54 positions, or 8 percent of its workforce.

The railroad says fewer than 100 properties in Anchorage are encroaching on the right of way, and maintains that the permitting program is not aimed at boosting revenues.

"One has nothing to do with the other," said Sullivan.

The railroad says the program would likely yield less than $20,000 in fees -- barely covering its own administrative costs.

Beardsley, whose property borders on the right of way, said that the railroad has cooperated with the Oceanview community council in the past about problems like noise. When it comes to the permitting, though, he and other residents said they were never notified of the potential policy change until their community council meeting last Wednesday, when a member brought a mailer he'd received from the railroad. That was two days before the end of the railroad's public comment period -- though that has since been extended all the way up to the November 12 board meeting.

"The president -- he never got a notice. So, who are they sending the notices to?" said Bob Gastrock, who found the mailer at his house after returning from a five-week trip. "One has to believe that maybe they're trying to stay under the radar and move this forward with minimal public pushback."

The presidents of the Turnagain and Spenard community councils both said they had heard nothing from the railroad about the proposed changes, though they now plan to discuss them at upcoming meetings.

In fact, Sullivan, the spokesman, said the railroad sent notices to 745 addresses in Anchorage that abut the right of way, as well as to an additional 742 addresses along the railroad across the rest of the state.

Sullivan said he did not want to speculate why just eight people attended an informational meeting last week that was advertised in the mailer. "We did a pretty extensive outreach program," he said.

Not all of the railroad's neighbors oppose the new policy. Frank Koziol, who lives next to the right of way downtown, said he supports the permitting program after the railroad responded to community concerns by making revisions to its original proposal.

He said he was especially appreciative that the railroad had backed off its effort to stop use of the right of way altogether.

"That philosophy has changed in the new plan," he said. "It's a matter of balancing risks versus the interests of people. They now, I believe, have adopted a reasonable plan and a policy."

Others, however, are questioning the railroad's ability to issue the permits at all. An Oceanview resident, John Pletcher, says on a personal website that the railroad's original right of way extended only to railroad operations and installation of utilities. It did not, he argues, get "exclusive use" -- which would grant permitting authority -- until it got a "secret" concession from the federal government in 2006.

Pletcher is lobbying for action from Gov. Sean Parnell and members of the state's congressional delegation.

In a legal memo provided by Sullivan, the railroad maintains that Pletcher's position is based on an "erroneous legal interpretation" of the railroad's authorizing legislation from 1914.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.