City deadlocked with state over rent for West Anchorage snow dump

The only publicly owned snow dump in West Anchorage won't be available to city crews this year because the administrators for the airport want to charge the city $250,000 in annual rent.

The city is refusing to pay. In a letter to state transportation commissioner Marc Luiken, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said the city should be allowed to keep using the snow dump on Northwood Drive for free. He said it's the first time in more than two decades the state has demanded rent for the snow dump, which has been historically managed by the city.

Airport and state transportation officials say that the federal government is requiring them to charge fair market rent. And, they say, because Berkowitz won't trade parkland for the property, they have no other choice.

With winter settling in, one less snow dump for the region west of Arctic Boulevard could mean big expenses for the city of Anchorage. City manager Mike Abbott said that not being able to use the Northwood snow dump could make snow maintenance more expensive and slower.

"It'll definitely affect the efficiency of our operation," Abbott said in an interview.

Snow dumps typically get their biggest use late in the season, when snow, mixed with road grime, has built up and left no room for more accumulations. The old snow is loaded into heavy trucks and hauled to the nearest available dump.

There are nine snow dumps in Anchorage. One is state-owned. The other eight are either owned or operated by the city. Anchorage has historically managed the Northwood Drive snow dump, an open field near a wetland off a frontage from West International Airport Road and next to a city-owned street maintenance building.

In his Sept. 2 letter to Luiken, Berkowitz said the state had saved "millions" in trucking and other costs by sharing snow dumps with the city. Berkowitz noted that the city has not charged the state for access to the snow dumps the city owns or manages. Abbott said the city is not threatening to change that arrangement.

Recently, rolling out his 2017 budget proposal, Berkowitz cited the snow dump rent demand as one example of the state, confronting a huge budget deficit, pushing costs onto local government.

But the saga of the Northwood snow dump is long-running and tied up in federal water pollution regulations, requirements for federal grants and land conflicts between the city and the airport, according to John Parrott, manager of the state-owned Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

"It imposes a burden on the municipality, there's no question about that," Parrott said. "But it shouldn't be portrayed as a shocking new development."

The most recent attempt to resolve the issue came in 2009, Parrott said, with the writing of the West Anchorage District Plan.

The document guides future growth in West Anchorage. Planners acknowledged snow dump land should be traded to the city, or the city should compensate the airport, which agrees to certain obligations when it accepts federal grants, Parrott said. That includes charging fair market rent for the use of airport property for road maintenance, Parrott said.

The snow dump has been used by the city at least in recent years on a permit or month-to-month basis. At the same time, the city has been out of compliance with federal requirements for water pollution. To continue as a snow dump, the property is in need of critical upgrades to prevent water pollution when the snow melts.

But city officials said the fixes couldn't be made without long-term control over the property.

At the end of former Mayor Dan Sullivan's administration, officials proposed a land swap that would have stripped 191-acre Point Woronzof Park of its parkland status in exchange for the Northwood Drive snow dump and a number of other properties and parkland. The airport was seeking Point Woronzof Park for a possible north-south runway.

City planners at the time described control of the snow dump as an immediate, pressing issue, a central piece of the land swap.

But a month after taking office last year, Berkowitz canceled the proposed agreement. Abbott, the city manager, said the community rejected the land swap and the idea of trading parkland and parts of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to the airport.

Parrott said the land swap was the latest attempt to get the city long-term control over the lease of the snow dump and bring the airport into compliance with federal rules.

After the swap faltered, the airport demanded rent, Parrott said.

"We've held off the (Federal Aviation Administration) for many years (saying), we're working on a permanent solution," Parrott said. "We're not working on a permanent solution anymore."

Abbott said the city administration has suggested other properties instead of Point Woronzof Park for a trade. He said the airport doesn't appear to be interested.

A spokeswoman for the state DOT, Shannon McCarthy, said the state was still trying to work out an agreement with the city. The airport falls under Transportation Department jurisdiction.

But at this point, Abbott said, the city won't use the Northwood Drive snow dump this winter, which means state crews won't use it, either, because the city was the only agency managing it. Both the city and the state have used it to deposit snow hauled from street and roads west of Arctic Boulevard, including in Spenard and Turnagain.

Abbott said he couldn't predict the added expense — that will depend on how much it snows this year.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.