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Assembly delivers East Anchorage new parkland, despite objections over process

Nathaniel Herz
The city acquired the East Anchorage property in 2006. It's part of a narrow, 29-acre strip that was purchased for $5 million from the federal government, which had seized the land in a drug case, according to court papers.
Bill Roth
The Anchorage Assembly voted 9-2 to dedicate the parcel of land east of the intersection of DeBarr and Muldoon roads as a city park.
Bill Roth

An East Anchorage assemblyman up for re-election in three weeks delivered a big win for his constituents Tuesday night, over accusations from some of his colleagues and the Sullivan administration that he was flouting the city's planning process.

The Assembly ultimately voted 9 to 2 to pass a measure sponsored by Adam Trombley that dedicates a 16-acre city property near  DeBarr and Muldoon roads as parkland, with Amy Demboski and Chris Birch in the minority. But that came after four members voted to postpone the decision until September, which would have given time for the city to complete an area plan for East Anchorage.

That's a step some Assembly members said they wanted to see finished before approving Trombley's proposal, along with reviews by the city's parks and planning commissions.

Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston ultimately voted with Trombley, saying that she recognized that the plan had East Anchorage residents' overwhelming support.

But that was after she tried and failed to get the parkland measure postponed.

"The concept of it, I support. It was the process that bothered me," she said in an interview Wednesday. "What happened last night is that whole process was kind of hijacked."

A spokeswoman for Mayor Dan Sullivan said that the mayor has the ability to veto the measure, and is "considering his options." A veto, however, would only take eight votes to overturn.

Trombley maintained that the steps that the Sullivan administration and some Assembly members had asked for were merely recommendations, and not requirements.

Based on the depth of community support for a park at the property, Trombley said, the outcome would have been the same regardless of whether the plan had gone through those reviews, which he called a "hassle."

"The Assembly can dedicate parkland," he said in an interview Wednesday. "It's going to be a park at the end of the day. Whether I do it in March or whether I do it in May doesn't matter."

The city acquired the East Anchorage property in 2006. It's part of a narrow, 29-acre strip that was purchased for $5 million from the federal government, which had seized the land in a drug case, according to court papers.

The property runs along the Chester Creek, and East Anchorage residents have long pushed for the entire parcel to be turned into a park, like the Delaney Park Strip downtown, which they say would be a welcome swath of green in an area that's otherwise heavily built and bustling with traffic.

The easternmost section had already been set aside as parkland, but the rest was originally zoned for commercial development and housing. The Northeast Community Council voted two years ago 51-0 to dedicate the whole parcel as parkland.

On Tuesday, Assemblywoman Demboski, a fiscal conservative who represents Eagle River and Chugiak, argued that the city's money to buy the East Anchorage property had originally come from a loan that was supposed to be paid off with proceeds from the sale of the western tract--proceeds that will never materialize if the parcel becomes a park.

"We had a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. We made a promise, and they threw it out last night right before an election," she said Wednesday.

Demboski and others made additional objections in Tuesday's meeting. The property, she said, is in need of remediation--a report commissioned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it could cost up to $118,000 to remove soils contaminated with pesticides left behind by a nursery that was once at the site.

And Demboski, Johnston, Assemblyman Tim Steele, and Municipal Manager George Vakalis all questioned the decision to bypass the planning and parks commissions, and to act before the release of the area plan.

"It is advisory. However, that is the process," said Vakalis, a top Sullivan administration official. "I've been asked to make that on the record, that the administration feels strongly that we should follow the process."

Trombley was not the sole Assembly member who pushed vocally for quick passage; others included his East Anchorage colleague Paul Honeman, as well as Bill Starr, who represents Eagle River and Chugiak.

While Trombley said that he had informed East Anchorage community councils that the measure would be on the agenda, no members testified in support during the public hearing portion of the Assembly meeting.

Lorne Bretz, the president of the Northeast Community Council, said he was surprised to hear the measure had been up for a vote, but nonetheless praised the Assembly and Trombley specifically, whom Bretz said had long been a backer of the plan to turn the whole parcel into a park.

"Hat's off to everyone that approved that, and to Adam for spearheading it," Bretz said. "I'm just glad to know the good news."

Trombley, a conservative, is currently locked in a re-election fight with Pete Petersen, a former state representative, and Mao Tosi, a community activist who manages the Northway Mall.

Trombley had previously suggested that East Anchorage park advocates pay for the land themselves, saying in a 2012 Daily News article that "if the community council wants to make it a park, it should go through a special tax assessment."

But Trombley said Wednesday that he had been misquoted, and had merely been describing ways the city could raise the money to pay for the park's upkeep.

While Tuesday's vote came with less than a month until Election Day, Trombley pointed out that he'd had a similar parkland proposal before the Assembly last May that had been postponed until last month.

He added that if he'd been seeking to take credit for the vote, he would have urged more East Anchorage residents to attend Tuesday's meeting.

"If it were politically motivated, don't you think I would have made sure that this place was packed, so that everybody knew about it?" he said. "This isn't a campaign issue."

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

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com