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7.0 earthquake spurs calls for more building oversight in Chugiak

  • Author: Matt Tunseth
  • Updated: January 20
  • Published January 20

The Chugiak Community Council met on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019 at the Elsie Oberg Center in Chugiak to discuss building safety. The council passed a resolution asking for a municipal requirement that residential housing plans in Chugiak-Eagle River be reviewed by a licensed engineer. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

Shaken to action by November’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake, some Chugiak residents believe it’s time to bring additional building safety measures to their community.

At its Thursday meeting, the Chugiak Community Council passed a resolution asking the Municipality of Anchorage to require that an engineer review plans for all residential structures requiring a municipal land-use permit.

“Somebody needs to look at these things,” said Bart Quimby, an engineer from Chugiak who spoke in favor of the resolution.

Council members said the intent is for the new rules to apply to the construction of new single- and multi-family homes.

The council also voted to request the resolution be sent to other area community councils, with the intent that the issue be brought before the full Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board, which only meets when at least two area councils call for a meeting.

The resolution was a compromise between those who wanted Chugiak-Eagle River included in the muni’s Building Safety Area and those who favor the current system, which requires no such review. The meeting included home builders, inspectors and several engineers who spent nearly three hours discussing the issue.

Quimby and others believe there are homes in Chugiak-Eagle River that have been poorly designed over the years, in part because of more lenient requirements for builders outside the city’s Building Safety Area (BSA). It’s a view Quimby has developed over more than three decades of living in the area.

“The earthquake simply put an exclamation point on it,” he said.

Council president Jake Horazdovsky began the discussion with a pitch to include Chugiak-Eagle River in the BSA, a move that would require a municipal plan review as well as municipal inspections -- neither of which are currently required for homes in Chugiak-Eagle River. Horazdovsky said he’s inspected about 30 homes since the quake, and has found many don’t have adequate lateral support in the form of properly designed and built shear walls -- which help resist lateral forces such as those that occur during an earthquake.

Horazdovsky believes the fault lies with poor oversight. Builders in Chugiak-Eagle River must follow the same building codes as those in Anchorage, but because builders outside the BSA don’t have to go through plan review or receive municipal inspections there’s little actual oversight.

“No one looks at the structures of our houses out here,” he said.

The Chugiak-Eagle River area saw some of the worst damage from the quake, but experts say it’s still far too early to say whether the damage was the result of intense shaking due to the area’s proximity to the epicenter, poor soil conditions or home construction techniques. But Horazdovsky said the amount of damage individual homes sustained in the quake is in many ways irrelevant.

What’s important, he said, is being ready for the next one.

“How do we limit damage and devastation on a grand scale if we get hit by a big earthquake?” he asked.

But home builders said recent news stories about homes in Chugiak-Eagle River being poorly built and designed do not paint their industry in an accurate light. Homebuilder Paul Michelsohn argued against including Chugiak-Eagle River in the BSA, saying it would add cost and additional red tape locals might come to regret.

“If you want to add more government intervention, all that happens is the price goes up,” he said.

A former Alaska Builder of the Year, Michelsohn said he already has an engineer go over plans for the homes he builds. There are a few “bad apples,” he said, but the industry by and large has an incentive to police itself because if a home fails it’s the contractor who’s on the hook.

“My butt’s on the line,” he said.

Engineer and home inspector Joe Lewandowski cautioned Chugiak residents to be careful what they wished for.

“The involvement of the municipality is not what everyone thinks it is,” he said.

Though builders and inspectors were leery of bringing increased municipal oversight to Chugiak-Eagle River, inspector Dave Owens said an engineering plan review requirement sounded like a sensible idea.

“That’s the piece that’s missing,” he said.

In the end, the council passed the resolution unanimously and with the support of the inspectors and builders who had come to protect their industry. Lewandowski said he thought the meeting produced a fair outcome and represented a positive step for all parties.

“I’m thrilled with what came out of it,” he said.

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