Butte trail head neighbors contend with crowds, parking shortage

Zaz Hollander
Loren Holmes

BUTTE -- It's not easy living next to one of the most popular trail heads in the Valley.

The 1.5-mile trail up Bodenburg Butte, a lumpish low mountain of bedrock with a major scenic payoff, draws around 600 hikers on summer weekends.

The trail starts partway down Mothershead Lane, a narrow gravel road off the Old Glenn Highway south of Palmer.

Residents of the long-established neighborhood around the trail head say they're dealing with trespassers, road congestion, late-night noise and lost privacy, unleashed dogs that threaten their pets and chickens, and occasional drug use in the parking lot.

A few even say irate trail users have pointed guns at them.

A loose dog killed Lisa Archibald's little Pomeranian seven years ago. Last week, her 20-year-old son -- one of four developmentally disabled people living on Mothershead Lane -- made a point to testify at a Butte Community Council meeting.

"He raised his hand and he told them, 'I'm scared to ride my bike down the road,' " said Archibald, who lives next to the trail head on property her family has owned for 60 years.

Mat-Su Borough officials say they have more than $202,000 in the recently approved budget to address the problems. Solutions could include expanding an existing parking lot that only fits 18 cars -- Prius-sized ones at that -- or building a much larger lot nearby but not in the middle of the neighborhood.

Officials say they haven't decided what to do yet and any changes will have to wait until after summer ends.

"What we're hearing from folks that live out there is the parking lot is too small. That's absolutely 100 percent true," said Hugh Leslie, the borough's recreation manager. "It's a good problem, which means we have a very popular facility that both residents and non-residents love to use."

It's also a problem. Trail users who park along the gravel road could block emergency vehicles trying to get to the eight or so homes past the parking lot, Leslie said. "That's really the issue I see as most pressing."

The issue goes before the borough Parks, Recreation and Trails Advisory Board at 5 p.m. May 27 at the MTA Events Center in Palmer.

The borough's West Butte Trail, a quick but sometimes steep trip, rewards hikers who gain the Butte's roughly 880-foot summit with views stretching to Knik Glacier and Knik Arm framed by Chugach and Talkeetna mountain peaks. There's another, much older trail leading from near the Williams Reindeer Farm side of the Butte that gets about half the use of the newer, borough trail.

Sometimes, residents say, people go up one way but then get turned around. That's when Joanna Meehan, who lives across from the trail head, hears a knock at the door.

"People ask where they are because they don't know which side of the Butte they came up," Meehan said. Dogs chase her chickens. She keeps her own dog confined.

Several residents say it's not enough to enlarge the existing parking lot. The borough needs to move the parking lot and the trail head out of the neighborhood and then post plenty of signs telling people where to go.

"There would be no neighborhood to interrupt," said Meehan, who has suggested the more wooded Marie's Circle as a possibility. "It would be so simple to put the parking lot over there and remove this one."

Well, as usual when government and property and public funds intersect, nothing is simple.

The money in the budget for the area doesn't officially get released until the start of the borough fiscal year on July 1.

Then officials need to decide whether to expand the parking lot or move it. Expanding, in terms of finding property, is much easier. There's a public concrete-block restroom at the trail head now that probably won't survive a move if the parking lot shifts, Leslie said. Those restrooms cost anywhere from $65,000 to $85,000. That could eat into that $202,000 pretty quickly.

The earliest the borough will buy any property is this fall, he said. "I understand that's not as quickly as some people would like."

Neighbors in mid-May said the crowding problems grew progressively worse over time but really spiked this month.

Mat-Su Assembly member Jim Sykes, who represents the Butte as part of his district, said trail head neighbors started calling in early May. The warm, sunny spring weather drew out the hoards.

"I think they said they counted over 100 cars in a four-hour period and there were 60-some on the street," Sykes said. "It's not a very long street and it's full of private drives."

The trail got some additional publicity earlier this month when the Anchorage-based Great Land Trust, a nonprofit land conservation group, announced plans to buy the top of the Butte from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and then turn it over to the borough.

Mother's Day fell on the same weekend that news broke, Archibald said. She called the borough for help. Crews posted "No parking on roadway" signs. As the lot overflowed, she just tried to make sure people parked on one side of the road only. Most complied.

"They're just trying to climb the Butte," she said. "It's not their fault they have nowhere to park."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.