Neighbors, school district clash over South High stadium plans

Nathaniel Herz
Bill Roth

A long-running battle over the state-funded construction of a new stadium at South Anchorage High School is pitting the school district against residents of a neighboring subdivision, who are leery of the noise, bright lights, and cars they say the stadium would bring.

For the past year, the district has been exploring how to lessen the impact of the proposed stadium at the request of the city's planning and zoning commission, going so far as an informal study involving iPhone recordings of a hammer repeatedly dropped onto sets of bleachers treated with noise-dampening compounds.

The proposal is scheduled to come back before the planning commission next month, when members will decide whether the measures proposed by the school district are enough to protect South's neighbors.

Kersten Johnson-Struempler, the school's principal, said she hopes to see the stadium built this summer -- but she recognizes that those plans could be delayed if the local homeowner's association decides to appeal a ruling.

"We've been held up through the public process," she said in an interview. "It really has created a big ruckus in that neighborhood."

The stadium project got its start in 2012, after a group of South High School parents and students successfully lobbied the Legislature for a $2.2 million grant, included in the capital budget, according to Johnson-Struempler.

Initial plans for the school, which opened in 2004, called for on-campus fields with few amenities. The football team plays its home games at the Anchorage Football Stadium, near Sullivan Arena.

Since then, however, the school district has been moving towards more of a "site-based, home-field system," Johnson-Struempler said.

Other high schools, such as Chugiak, Eagle River, and Dimond, play their varsity football games on their own fields, and several others have upgrades in the works, including Bartlett, West, and Service.

The school district is asking the planning commission to allow South to add bleacher seating for some 1,600 spectators, plus lighting and a sound system.

Those plans, however, are butting up against a neighborhood group, the Turnagain View Estates Homeowners Association.

South -- itself a school where just 12 percent of students qualify for free and reduced priced meals, compared to 48 percent district-wide -- was built in the middle of an upscale neighborhood, with $500,000 homes separated from the playing fields by narrow strips of spruce and birch trees.

The homeowners association is led by Alex Slivka, who works in institutional marketing for McKinley Capital Management. His home backs up to the school's playing fields, he said.

The group, which represents 164 homeowners, has already spent more than $50,000 on legal fees fighting the stadium project, Slivka said. While not all the association's members oppose the plans, meeting minutes show that some 75 percent of attendees tend to be aligned with Slivka.

In an interview, he ticked off several reasons for his group's opposition.

The school's original plans were specifically designed for the fields to be used for practices only, Slivka argued -- not for big games, with the noise, lighting, and traffic that come with them.

And, regardless of how the school district tries to reduce those impacts, sound will still spill over into neighboring private property, in violation of the city's noise ordinance, he maintained -- a position bolstered by the conclusions of a separate noise study that the homeowner's association commissioned.

Residents are skeptical that the district will follow through on any of the mitigation measures presented to the planning commission, given "the history of broken promises regarding the South High property," according to a letter written by an attorney for the homeowners association that was sent to commission members in November.

The commission considered the school's application early last year but postponed a vote, with members saying they needed more details and analysis of the stadium plans.

That's what led to the sound tests, which brought together a school district official, two consultants, and an employee of a local contractor to examine whether treating the proposed bleachers with certain compounds, like truck bed liner or insulating foam, could cut down noise.

The tests saw Dwayne Adams, a landscape architect at local design firm USKH, using an iPhone to record noise measurements of a dead-blow hammer dropped onto the bleachers from a height of 12 inches -- which, as Adams's report dryly noted, was an attempt to "provide a resounding but relatively consistent noise" that compared to the "foot-stomping" that might occur after successful football plays.

The measurements, according to Adams's report, showed that the insulating foam made a "clear and discernible difference" in sound -- both as measured by the iPhone, and anecdotally by the observers.

Adams acknowledged that the study was not scientific, but he said it was practical, in spite of the unorthodox methods.

"We've done all sorts of odd things to satisfy projects," he said. "If that's what you've got to do is stand out there and drop hammers 100 times -- well, you drop a hammer."

Based on the results of the study, the district is planning to enclose the bleachers with plywood, or another material, to muffle the stomping noise, and it's also still examining the potential for using the insulating foam, or a similar substance, Adams said.

The cost of those measures could hit $100,000, he added.

The school district has also promised to limit the number of high-profile events held in the stadium, said Johnson-Struempler, the South principal -- she predicted four to five varsity football games annually, plus the occasional track meet.

"We've really tried to narrow it down to the most important events," she said.

The school's proposal is scheduled to come back before the planning commission Feb. 10.

If the plan is approved, Slivka said the homeowners association would "absolutely" consider appealing the decision.

Several other neighborhood residents interviewed this week also said they were skeptical of the stadium plans.

Dianna Jensen, whose home is just across a strip of trees from one end of the football field, said she can already hear the school's bell when it rings. She maintained that the proposed upgrades amounted to the school district "going back on their word."

"The camel has its nose under the tent, and now it's trying to get the whole camel in," she said. "I don't think every single school needs its own football field."

Residents also questioned how the school district could have money to upgrade the fields, while officials are simultaneously contemplating layoffs to close a budget shortfall.

Johnson-Streumpler, the principal, said the money comes "from two different pots" -- the funding for the fields is a one-time capital grant.

The neighborhood opposition isn't uniform, however: Another neighbor, Tiffanie Novakovich, said she and her husband were "indifferent" to the district's proposal.

"If it goes through, we're okay with it," she said.

Novakovich added that she trusted officials to keep their promises, after she'd heard about similar conflicts between the district and residents who live near Dimond High School's stadium.

"I think they've had enough backlash from neighbors that they know what they need to abide by," she said.

As for students, Evan, a South freshman out on lunch break earlier last week, said he hoped the field would be built -- though his mother, who lives nearby, "is kind of nervous about it," he added.

Johnson-Struempler, the principal, said that other students were also getting impatient.

"They're teenagers, so they're a little frustrated that it's taken as long as it has to try to get a facility in," she said. "But it's a good lesson in democracy for them, as well."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.