Three Anchorage women, all members of the Spenard Community Council, trudged across a stretch of frozen wetland near the Connor’s Bog Dog Park on a November afternoon.
“This is our favorite place,” said Tahnee Seccareccia, as her dog Sammy zoomed between her boots and leapt around mounds of iced-over vegetation.
Just to the south, in a clearing between stands of scrubby black spruce, a cow moose spotted the women and leapt to its feet, dashing away to the southeast and into a 32-acre area that the city is working to turn into a new snow dump site in West Anchorage.
City planners say the Connor’s Bog site is the city’s best option for a proposed snow dump project; the most cost-effective and low-impact site for West Anchorage, where they say a new snow dump is badly needed.
The current West Anchorage snow dump is located nearby on airport-owned property, and Federal Aviation Administration regulations prevent long-term leases of the land for non-aviation use, according to city planners. The city wants to invest in a permanent snow dump site that meets regulations, with proper water treatment, but it says it needs long-term oversight of the property to do that.
Some area neighbors and residents like Seccareccia are pushing back at the idea. They’re worried that they’ll lose access to one of the last remaining accessible wild areas in West Anchorage — and see negative environmental impacts to an area that serves as habitat for moose, waterfowl and migratory birds.
The Anchorage Assembly on Nov. 1 approved the rezoning of the 32 acres from transitional lands to public lands and institutions, essentially green-lighting the planning and design of a new snow dump at the site. The estimated $8 million project must still go through more public approval processes before it can be built. Construction wouldn’t begin until 2023.
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The site, part of an area designated as Class A wetlands in the Anchorage Wetlands Management Plan, remains nearly impassable for people during the warmer months, but it is a key habitat for moose and birds.
In the winter, when the bog freezes over, the site is used by skiers, snowshoers and dog walkers.
It’s also where moose take refuge from people and dogs on the busier social trails snaking through the park, said Lindsey Hajduk, the Spenard Community Council’s chair, who joined Seccareccia and Peggy Auth on the walk.
“In West Anchorage, in Spenard, this is the wildest access that we have. You come here. This is the wild space,” Hajduk said. “It just really matters how it all moves forward.”
A growing need
West Anchorage’s current Northwood snow dump site, which holds about 20% of the city’s snow haul each year, is owned by nearby Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. It’s the biggest of eight snow dumps in the city.
City planners say Federal Aviation Administration regulations are stopping the city from securing a lease for longer than five years for the dump, stymieing needed upgrades.
Without long-term management over the site, the city can’t justify spending the money, Laurie Cummings, a planner with HDR Alaska, told the Assembly. HDR Alaska is working with the city on the project.
Julie Makela, project administrator with the city’s planning department, said that the Northwood snow dump is usually leased on a year-to-year basis, and it currently has a three-year lease. Building a permanent site would be in the best financial interest of taxpayers, she said.
The city also needs more room to dump snow.
New and widened roadways and heavy snowfall some winters are stressing the city’s snow hauling system, said Bill Spencer with HDR during a Nov. 9 project presentation.
The city maintains about 1,300 lane miles of municipally-owned roads, Spencer said. Each winter, the city hauls on average 62,000 truckloads of snow to the city’s snow dumps.
The newly selected snow dump site at Connor’s Bog is bordered by Javier de la Vega Park directly to the north and Minnesota Drive to the east. To the west is Connor’s Lake and the more heavily used portions of the dog park.
The city’s Project Management & Engineering department selected the site out of 19 possibilities, Spencer said.
Snowmelt from the current Northwood site helps to feed Connor’s Lake, and snowmelt at the new location would continue to help replenish the remaining wetland, Spencer said. Construction requires filling part of the wetlands to create a 15-acre pad for snow disposal, he said.
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City planners say multiple factors make the Connor’s Bog site the best spot for a snow dump: It’s removed from residential areas, allowing 24-hour access for dumping. The area is undeveloped, city-owned land. Also, it is large enough to accommodate West Anchorage’s snow storage needs over the next 50 years.
Makela said that while there are some drawbacks, “we do feel overall this is the best site and the least environmentally damaging practical alternative.”
“It’s not ideal to place a snow disposal site in a Class A wetlands, but the availability of large tracts of uplands in this area of town in West Anchorage is just not available,” Makela said.
The project is currently in the design and permitting phase, and first must acquire approval for two Title 21 variances and a conditional use permit before construction can begin.
Community Councils weigh in
Connor’s Bog Park sits within the northeast edge of the Sand Lake Community Council’s boundaries. That community council passed a resolution in favor of the project earlier this year.
Sand Lake’s council chair, Parker Haymans, said some council members were concerned about the potential impacts of a snow dump site near residential and business properties, such as the effects of increased groundwater from snowmelt, and so favored the plan to put one in Connor’s Bog, away from houses and businesses.
They also worry about a decline in road servicing standards if a new snow dump with more capacity is not secured, he said.
But Turnagain and Spenard Community Councils, with boundaries directly to the north of Sand Lake’s, have largely expressed concern over the project’s impact on wetlands, wildlife and a park beloved to many residents.
Cathy Gleason, current acting chair for Turnagain Community Council, said that for the last 20 years, it seemed clear that the areas of Connor’s Bog owned by the city would remain protected.
“All the planning documents are very clear about how important wetlands are and that they really should be protected and and ultimately become dedicated parkland,” Gleason said in an interview. “And so that’s why this proposal for 32 acres, pretty well yanked out of that inventory, is a big blow for that ecological and community benefit.”
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Numerous municipal land use and planning documents, including Assembly-adopted land use plans, have designated that the site should be protected as high value wetlands, important wildlife habitat, park lands and community-preferred natural open space.
Snow often contains trash and pollutants that could affect water quality, she said. The area of Connor’s Bog that city planners requested be rezoned is also more than twice as large as the area that the city identified as needing for a new snow dump site in its site study, she said.
“All of a sudden it morphed from 15 acres to 32 acres,” she said.
Still, recognizing the need for a new snow disposal site and the likelihood that the city will move forward with the project, the Turnagain council has proposed to the Assembly four “community compensation conditions” for the project:
• That the area used be reduced to 15 acres, the size identified in the site selection study as ideal.
• That the city take on long-term trash management and maintenance of the surrounding area water quality.
• That the city leave half of the 32 acres unfenced to allow for public use and wildlife movement.
• That the remaining city-owned land at Connor’s Bog undergo a formal rezoning for parkland dedication.
Makela said that while it’s possible water quality monitoring will be a condition of the permitting process, the department feels justified in needing 32 acres.
“The biggest thing is planning for the future and making sure that we only have to do this once. And we want to make sure that we adequately sized this for snow storage and also for the meltwater to meet water quality standards,” Makela said.
Whether the remaining city land at the bog becomes parkland is not a decision the planning department can make, she said. It is a land management decision for the administration and real estate department, she said.
Melinda Tsu, the project manager with Anchorage’s planning department, told the Assembly that the area just for snow disposal, comprised of a gravel pad, needs to be 15 acres. More space is needed surrounding that pad for developing the full facility, including water quality treatment, Tsu said.
City planners say that that the snow disposal site would be fully fenced and surrounded by a berm that contains control structures to release meltwater into the rest of the bog. A trail along the berm would connect with the AWWU corridor to the west and the Javier de la Vega ballfields to the north.
The project is in the design phase right now, and they are working to address environmental concerns such as water treatment, Tsu said. They are proposing using “green infrastructure” — portions of the wetland itself — to treat the snowmelt, Tsu said.
Part of the wetlands surrounding the gravel pad will act as a moat between the pad and the outer berm, Tsu said.
That allows the snowmelt to collect and for sediments and pollutants, like chloride from road salt, to settle before before the water is discharged into the surrounding bog, according to Makela. The city uses a similar method at some of its other snow dump sites, and it has worked well, she said.
There are no such water quality treatment measures in place at the current Northwood snow dump site, Makela said.
“We actually think we’re going to have pretty darn good water quality by the time we’re done, better than our current situation, obviously,” Makela said.
However, long-term testing could be a stipulation of the conditional use permit, she said.
What about the moose?
Some park users are also worried that they’ll see an increase in negative interactions with moose if a large portion of their habitat becomes a snow dump.
“When you take away the area that they love, which is the wetlands, the marsh area, when you take that away and you put snow in place, you’re essentially moving all of those moose... closer to where the humans are regularly interacting, and not just with humans, but their dogs,” Seccareccia with the Spenard Community Council told the Assembly.
Makela said while the city is taking away acreage from the wild wetland, keeping a snow dump site in the Connor’s Bog area will help to hydrate the rest of the wetlands and lake that the moose and other animals love.
But Seccareccia and Gleason both say that they’d prefer to see the snow dump stay where it is at the Northwood site. They say that the city could try to get U.S. and state leaders involved to work with the FAA to help the city secure a long-term lease for a shared airport-city snow dump.
“As the community continues to develop in West Anchorage, the natural open spaces that exist now, the community, the neighbors should fight for those,” Gleason said.
“The whole quality of life comes into play,” she said.