Anchorage is making a new effort to curb illegal parking at state park trailheads

Tensions have long surrounded the narrow neighborhood streets that lead to trailheads in Anchorage's popular Chugach State Park, which city officials say can be overwhelmed with cars in good weather.

This summer, officials are putting up new signs and more regularly ticketing drivers who ignore them.

Bear Valley, a neighborhood on the Anchorage Hillside directly south of Flattop Mountain, is serving as a testing ground. The narrow, unpaved roads that lead up to a trailhead there can be packed with cars on sunny days, reducing the street to one lane of traffic and generating worries about access and safety.

Four new signs installed in June direct visitors and residents not to park on either side of three neighborhood streets, except for five designated parking spots. Ignoring the signs could mean a $20 fine.

It's the city's latest attempt to manage a chronic Anchorage conflict between public safety and private property rights, and the public's right to access the wilderness. Similar issues have persisted at the South Fork Eagle River trailhead, at the Eagle River Nature Center, in Stuckagain Heights and in Potter Valley.

"This is an issue basically at every road that leads up to a trailhead, regardless of the parking facilities that are or are not in place," said Kris Langley, traffic safety division manager for the municipality.

Various "No Trespassing" and "No Parking" signs have hung in the Bear Valley neighborhood for years. But on June 19, crews installed four signs instructing drivers not to park on either side of three streets: Honey Bear Circle, a street down the road from the trailhead; Honey Bear Lane, the street leading up to the trailhead and the cul-de-sac surrounding the five parking spaces; and Snow Bear Drive, a dead-end road leading to undeveloped private property, which neighbors say has attracted bad behavior over the years.

The signs are new enough that it isn't known if they'll stand up in court if a driver challenges a citation. But if the approach works, Langley said, "this will become the new standard for how we deal with things around Chugach State Park."

In an interview, Anchorage city manager Mike Abbott blamed the need for the signs on the state. He said neighbors should not be forced to see the state park as an "attractive nuisance."

"It's incredibly frustrating that the state is not working to resolve the problems that its park is causing," Abbott said.

He said the state should be building parking and developing trailheads to solve access problems. But at least right now, that isn't likely, said Tom Harrison, the superintendent of Chugach State Park.

Harrison said he was well aware of the conflicts, which he said defy easy solutions. He also said he was skeptical about the city's latest approach.

"People are under the assumption that if there's a no-parking sign, people won't park there," Harrison said. "And that's an erroneous assumption, unfortunately."

Langley also said that bigger, larger parking lots aren't necessarily the answer. If 70 spaces are built, 90 people might show up, Langley said.

A key piece would be more regular enforcement of the laws the signs advertise. Otherwise, a sign is no more than a piece of metal, she said.

If the Bear Valley approach helps curb parking problems, Langley said, she had at least eight or nine other spots in mind for the signs.

The South Fork Eagle River trailhead, which offers access to the popular trail to Eagle and Symphony Lakes, is among those spots. In May, at a South Fork Community Council meeting, frustrated residents voted on a resolution to end free parking.

Langley said the Chugach trailheads suffer from competing interests. Visitors want to get into the public park, one of Anchorage's major attractions. But neighbors want to get to and from their homes, Langley said, and emergency responders want to be able to help people who live in the neighborhood as well as hikers who may have injured themselves. Fire trucks also need to be able to respond to brush fires, she said.

In the month since the Bear Valley signs were installed, community service officers from the Anchorage Police Department have patrolled the trailhead four times, said Renee Oistad, a police spokeswoman. Each time the officers visited, there were cars parked in spaces in the small parking lot.

But all were parked legally, Oistad said. "No citations issued."

The city currently has two community service officers, unsworn officers who enforce parking laws. A third is in training. With limited time, the officers can't go up every day, Oistad said, though she added that the officers would respond to direct complaints.

As of last week, no complaints had been received, Oistad said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the streets where the new parking signs have been installed. Honey Bear Lane is the cul-de-sac with five parking spaces, and Honey Bear Circle is a street down the road from the trailhead.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.