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Compass: Airport still has its eyes on park land

Anchorage residents following the ongoing Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport Master Plan Update have been repeatedly given two main points of information. One, that management is taking a "phased approach" to future Airport development; and two, the proposed second North/South runway has been consequently put off until "Phase 4." This sounds like good news for the many local users and supporters of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and Point Woronzof Park through which it runs. Turns out the good news isn't so good after a closer look.

On Dec. 11, the first meeting of the "West Anchorage Land Trade Task Force" convened without any public notice or attention from the local press.

This task force, jointly funded by the airport and the Municipality of Anchorage, is charged with packaging and recommending potential land trade scenarios between these two entities. The airport is interested in acquiring two municipally-owned parcels -- Point Woronzof Park and the adjacent parcel reserved by the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility for eventual upgrades to the city's nearby sewage treatment facility.

Point Woronzof Park is dedicated Municipal parkland and home to a lengthy stretch of the Coastal Trail. It was created as "permanent" parkland in 1994 as a condition of a previous land trade between the airport and the municipality. According to the airport's Master Plan Update, this is exactly where they would construct a new billion-dollar North/South runway, if their "phased approach" were to warrant it. (The fact that cargo traffic is down 25 percent from its peak several years ago and shows no signs of significant growth in the foreseeable future begs the question of why the new runway is included in the Master Plan Update.)

To avoid overt controversy regarding development of another runway, the airport is playing a shell game in this latest attempt to gain ownership of Point Woronzof Park and the AWWU reserve land. With their "phased approach", they have successfully decoupled acquisition of these properties from any imminent threat of a new runway being built. Consequently, few people, including the press, is paying much attention to this new Land Trade Task Force effort.

The municipality has a slightly broader list of parcels they are interested in acquiring, but the driving factor for this current Land Trade Task Force effort is the West Anchorage snow dump/treatment facility near the corner of Minnesota Drive and International Airport Road. For years, the municipality has leased this property from the airport for use as West Anchorage's snow dump. A couple of factors have put its continued use at risk.

One, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is requiring water treatment upgrades at the site, which are not complicated but will cost some money. Two, the municipality once had predictable long-term leases on this land, but now rents from the airport on a month-by-month basis. The municipality is understandably skittish about spending money on upgrades to land for which they don't have a reliable expectation of long-term use. Those rental terms put the city in a bind that leaves it fewer negotiating options and gives the airport the upper hand.

Bottom line -- are Anchorage residents willing to give up Point Woronzof Park which houses a beautifully-wooded section of our existing Coastal Trail, and compromise the future ability for AWWU to upgrade an essential city utility because the airport and the municipality can't or won't figure out how to allow for long-term use of the West Anchorage snow dump?

The fact that the airport has not identified any aviation use or need for the snow dump parcel in their Master Plan Update highlights the absurdity of this whole problem.

The airport is part of the state Department of Transportation and is virtually unaccountable to the municipality or Anchorage's residents. This should and could change through legislative action. Making the airport more accountable to the city it is supposed to serve could help avoid costly and irrational turf wars that only end up diminishing quality of life for Anchorage residents.

David Landry is a carpentry contractor who has closely followed the Anchorage airport master plan.