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New town sites are being planned on the Mat-Su end of a Knik Arm bridge

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- As the proposed toll bridge across Knik Arm struggles for funding, two Mat-Su Borough projects seek to refute questions about where new residents might settle if a bridge gets built.

Two borough projects hinge on population growth linked to the bridge, considered a top priority by borough officials but questioned by opponents as speculative.

The Southwest Borough Demographic Study looks at areas of potential population density, dubbed town sites, where residents lured by the bridge might end up, from Settlers Bay and Knik-Goose Bay Road to Point MacKenzie and Big Lake. The Mat-Su Assembly set aside $70,000 for that study during last year's budget process.

Consultants and planners are evaluating future roads as well as the potential for modern water and sewer treatment "pocket" plants that are less extensive than traditional wastewater treatment facilities, chief of planning Lauren Driscoll said. The sites include large tracts of institutional land, owned by the borough or native corporations.

Officials have also spent about $32,000 over the last year-and-a-half looking at a town site at Point MacKenzie, near Goose Creek Correctional Center, Driscoll said. The borough owns that area, and is looking at a "hands-on" approach to developing it, she said. The prison also has sewer and water utilities, which a future town site could connect to.

The Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority hopes to build a 1.7-mile bridge across Knik Arm connecting Anchorage with the Mat-Su. Construction costs for the first phase, a two-lane bridge, are estimated by KABATA at $710 million to $750 million.

During the last legislative session, a state audit criticized toll predictions and legislation was introduced to eliminate KABATA and move the project to the authority of the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. Gov. Sean Parnell earlier this month proposed paying for the project with public money rather than using a public-private partnership as originally envisioned.

The ongoing demographic study serves to answer some of the questions raised about KABATA's predictions, Driscoll said, but also helps the borough plan for future growth in an already growing area.

"We're trying to get a visual handle -- where would all these people go if we had the bridge tomorrow?" she said. "If it's not the bridge then where would all these people go in the next 10 or 20 years?"

She expects a 15- to 20-page report to be delivered to the Legislature.

KABATA is also releasing its own demographic study.

Shannon Bingham, a Colorado consultant helping with the population calculation, estimates that 45,000 people could live in the town sites by 2060 should the bridge be built -- 10,000 more people than Chugiak and Eagle River have now.

"The phrase 'what if' is key to this thing," Bingham said.

Critics question the population estimates as highly speculative.

It's also clear that the borough already has its hands full paying for wastewater treatment projects to serve existing communities, said Bob French, a longtime bridge opponent who lives on Government Hill in Anchorage. Both Palmer and Wasilla's facilities are out of compliance with national standards. The borough is researching construction of a new central septage treatment facility.

"What's the cost of some of these typical water and sewer systems?" French asked. "If you start extrapolating out the numbers, the projected growth numbers, I guess you could see how big an undertaking this whole thing is."

The borough holds public meetings on the proposed sites next week.

Feedback from residents -- the borough notified 450 property owners with more than 1.5 acres in the town site areas -- could change the final product, Driscoll said.

Concerns raised at mid-December public town site meetings focused on density, the ability to provide water and sewer utilities and the uncertain future of the bridge, Bingham said.

Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss proposed the Point MacKenzie town site last year. The Mat-Su is not historically a place known for its embrace of land-use planning. Borough Manager John Moosey said planning staff were "very excited to be talking about these issues with the mayor."

But the site is not the location preferred by the Point MacKenzie Community Council, said Wilma Gonzalez, the council's treasurer. Residents of a subdivision in that area are strongly opposed to the town site, Gonzalez said.

"I don't think people really want to have the town close to a prison," she said. "It might be on the outskirts of a town site or a town but not right in the middle of a town, in my opinion."

Big Lake Community Council president Bill Kramer said he supports the borough's long-term planning process for town sites and hopes the resulting study doesn't end up on borough shelves like some other big projects have.

"What I think the borough does really well is make plans," Kramer said. "What I think sometimes they struggle at is implementation of plans."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 352-6705.

IF YOU GO: The Mat-Su Borough will hold 90-minute public meetings on the proposed town sites associated with future Knik Arm Bridge construction at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 8 at Knik Elementary School and at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 9 at Big Lake Public Library.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com