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Planning officials soften wetland protection language

Tegan Hanlon

Anchorage planning officials have revised a wetlands management plan, softening language about protecting a controversial parcel in the University-Medical District.

The eastern edge of Mosquito Lake, a more than 14-acre swath of open water and surrounding wetland, lies near the path of a long-talked-about road that will connect Elmore Road and Bragaw Street. A draft of the wetlands plan rewrites the 1996 management strategy for the lake, from "shall be preserved without disturbance" to "shall be preserved to the maximum extent possible."

The change applies to other locations too, like parts of Chester Creek along the greenbelt, Beach Lake and Lake Hideaway.

Critics of the proposed rewording say they fear it will unlock now-protected areas of the city to future development. Supporters say the permitting process already allows for certain development on wetlands despite assurances written into the management plan.

"The language changes that we did, we did to reflect the reality," said Thede Tobish, a senior planner with the city.

At the Assembly meeting Tuesday, about eight residents testified in opposition to the language change in the wetlands plan, most speaking directly to the rewording involving Mosquito Lake. The Assembly ultimately voted to continue the public hearing at its June 24 meeting, giving neighboring community councils time to review the 150-page wetlands plan, said Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson.

Written by the city planning division, the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan acts as an advisory document for the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency that grants permits for construction activities on some of the city's designated wetlands.

When asked if the changes would ease the permitting process for development on designated wetlands, Tobish said, "It won't make a difference."

He said the staff made the changes because it has observed the Corps issuing permits for Class A wetlands -- the highest value, best-protected category of wetlands -- over more than a decade. He cited the time a few years ago when the Corps permitted the extension of Dowling Road toward Raspberry Road over the north side of Tina Lake, a Class A wetland.

"Since the original plan, we have learned that the Corps process and the Corps regulation are the final word, especially when it comes to controversial projects," Tobish said. "We were trying to reflect the actual process the way the Corps handles it."

In the updated plan, Mosquito Lake will keep its A designation. The Corps permits development on Class A and B wetlands, while the municipality's planning division approves development on Class C wetlands.

Nicole Hayes is a regulatory specialist with the Corps, headquartered at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. She said the phrasing of the 1996 management strategy for Mosquito Lake was not accurate.

"Saying that Class A wetlands are not developable is not a realistic statement," Hayes said. "Those are the wetlands we want to avoid as a community. However, the plan itself doesn't stop development."

Hayes said the Corps approves about 99 percent of wetland permit applications. She could not immediately say how many permits the Corps has received in years past.

According to the updated management plan, the total number of wetland parcels in Anchorage shrank from 5,516 in 1996 to about 4,000 in 2012.

Carolyn Ramsey, a 40-year resident of Anchorage who lives in Airport Heights, opposes the revised wording for Mosquito Lake and other projects.

She said the change "leaves the determination of 'the maximum extent possible' up to individual interpretation whereas 'preserved without disturbance' is indisputable."

Midtown Assemblyman Dick Traini said he has received many emails from concerned residents who, he said, wanted to stop the road from going through the U-Med District. They are focusing their efforts on Mosquito Lake's new strategic plan, he said.

"I'll ask their questions," Traini said. "In the end, I think they'll be driving down that road."

City officials in February announced a preferred route for the proposed road through the U-Med District, backed by $20 million in already appropriated state funding.

Eric Miyashiro, who is managing the project for the state Department of Transportation, expects DOT to submit a wetlands permit application to the Corps by June or July. It's still unclear what portion of wetlands the road will hit, he said. It may completely avoid Mosquito Lake.

The 2014 Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan is the third update to a plan that was first approved by the Assembly in 1982. The municipality has been under the 1996 plan for 17 years.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com