Zoning dispute pits Hillside residents against operator of home for elderly, disabled

Nathaniel Herz
Bill Roth

A dispute is coming to a head this week between residents of a Hillside subdivision and the owners of a small home for the elderly and physically disabled that's trying to expand its operations in the neighborhood.

A city zoning board is scheduled to hear an appeal Thursday by a resident of the subdivision who is arguing that Anchorage's community development department shouldn't have given permission to Alaska Premium Care to house eight people at its assisted-living facility at the end of a cul-de-sac -- up from the five it holds now -- on the grounds that it will "jeopardize the area's residential character."

The department granted Alaska Premium Care a zoning variance in February and has defended it by saying the home is "nicely landscaped" and blends into the Sahalee neighborhood, just west of Service High School. Both the company and its potential clients would suffer if the five-person limit were kept in place, the city wrote in its response to the appeal.

Residents, meanwhile, opposed the variance by a 79-to-1 vote at a community council meeting in February. Valerie Waldrop, who filed the appeal in May, argues that the city didn't independently verify Alaska Premium Care's financial claims and says the expansion will generate traffic that could cause risks for the pedestrians and children "who frequently walk on the quiet, dead-end street."

The residents went as far as stationing observers near another assisted living facility operated by Alaska Premium Care to record the number of vehicles that stopped there between 6 a.m. and midnight -- and they used video to track the number of visits to the house in the Sahalee neighborhood, which Waldrop said was higher than the company had promised.

In an email, Waldrop declined to comment.

In an interview, Jack DeMoss, a registered nurse who's the CEO of Alaska Premium Care, said he was trying to meet the demands of his clients -- who, he added, want to live in a subdivision like Sahalee.

"I get calls every single day," said DeMoss, 67. "When clients see it, they love it immediately -- love the house, love the neighborhood."

With full financing from the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., DeMoss' company purchased the 5,000-square-foot building, a two-story home at the end of Cormorant Cove Circle in the upscale subdivision, where it's surrounded by similar spacious houses.

In March, the facility received a license from the state to care for elderly clients and for people with physical disabilities, though not for mentally ill clients.

DeMoss' company runs a similar home on Wesleyan Drive in the U-Med District, and an affiliated firm provides in-home care. He estimated 100 people work for the two companies; Medicaid covers the costs for about two-thirds of his clients, he said.

Both DeMoss and the city's community development department noted that the federal Fair Housing Act says reasonable exceptions to rules can be made so people with disabilities can acquire housing.

DeMoss said that an investigator at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Seattle office is monitoring the zoning process for his facility.

HUD spokesman Leland Jones would not confirm that an investigation was taking place, but he said in a phone interview that "it's fair to say that we would have an interest in any case of this sort."

There are already about 420 assisted-living facilities in Anchorage, according to Craig Baxter, the state's residential licensing program manager.

Most are smaller operations than Alaska Premium Care's proposed expansion, with space for three to five people.

Generally, new facilities don't have trouble filling their beds, but the state does not track waiting lists or demand, Baxter added. While Anchorage's assisted-living facilities are among the priciest in the nation -- at about $5,700 a month, according to a recent survey -- Providence Health and Services' Alaska Horizon House has 11 open spaces, a spokesman said Monday.

Alaska Premium Care's clients pay an average of $180 a day, or about $5,500 per month, and the company says it has people on a waiting list. Its home in the Sahalee neighborhood would lose money if it's limited to five residents, it said in filings to the city zoning board.

But Waldrop, the resident who filed the appeal, disputed the company's contention that there was heavy demand for assisted-living facilities and argued in her filing that neither the city nor Alaska Premium Care had cited specific information about the cost or availability of other housing options to justify the variance.

She also argued in her appeal that the company started working on upgrades to the home before it had received a variance -- meaning that Alaska Premium Care "created the financial necessity, if any exists, for the expanded facility."

Mike Eldridge, a member of the Sahalee Homeowners Association's board of directors, said neighborhood residents are frustrated with Alaska Premium Care because it hadn't worked closely enough with them.

"They haven't done anything to help their cause," he said.

Eldridge added that he wasn't opposed to assisted-living facilities being in his neighborhood -- there's already one four houses down from his own -- but said that for them to work, "the ownership, I think, needs to be very proactive in working with the residents."

DeMoss said he would likely convert the Sahalee unit into a different style of operation, with a family living alongside clients, if his variance is ultimately denied. The city zoning board's decision is appealable to Superior Court; DeMoss said he hasn't made a decision about whether he would take that approach.

"I'm not trying to do anything sneaky, man," he said. "I'm just trying to provide a nice home for our seniors."

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