PALMER — Mat-Su officials are weighing a rule change that would eliminate a building buffer around lakes that has been in place for more than 30 years to protect salmon and prevent waterway pollution.
A new advisory committee will examine whether the rule should change on any water body. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Tuesday night approved the committee including one member selected despite concerns that she has business ties to an assembly member who supports easing the setback restrictions.
The rule, known as a riparian setback, bans construction within 75 feet of any waterway in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, with exceptions for small structures like boathouses.
But in Mat-Su, where there is no required building permit process and little code enforcement due to low staffing, hundreds of structures have been illegally built within the setback, borough officials say. The law does not apply to structures built before 1987, when the current rule was put in place.
Members of the new committee, initially nominated by Borough Mayor Edna DeVries, will make recommendations that could include whether to shrink the 75-foot buffer, pollution abatement steps, what kind of civil engineering support should be required for structures built in that zone, and any recommended borough permitting changes.
More than 700 properties on lakes in the borough are in violation of the rule, planning and land-use director Alex Strawn told officials at a borough Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting this year.
The new committee’s formation was sponsored by DeVries at the request of assembly member Rob Yundt, a building contractor whose district includes Wasilla.
Because home inspections are likely to note setback violations, the current rule prevents property owners from selling or doing major renovations that require financing, sometimes unfairly, Yundt said Tuesday.
Yundt co-owns Robert Yundt Homes LLC, a general contractor that constructs homes and apartments in Mat-Su.
Forming the new committee is the latest step in a contentious series of proposals involving Yundt aimed at lowering the setback and grandfathering in the roughly 700 illegal buildings.
An ordinance introduced in January would have grandfathered into compliance all illegal structures built within the setback and allowed new structures within the zone on lakes only so long as they were given the OK by a structural engineer and approved by the borough. That proposal was met with a public outcry and rejected by the borough’s fish and wildlife and planning commissions.
A revised version cosponsored by Yundt in May did not include the blanket approval for current infractions. It also would have put in place allowances for new structures within 25 feet provided a civil engineer or “other professional registered with the state” signs off on pollution abatement plans and the build receives a mandatory land-use permit from the borough. Given continued public opposition, Yundt then pulled that ordinance and instead worked with DeVries to introduce the advisory panel ordinance.
Assembly member Mokie Tew, whose district includes Big Lake, also cosponsored the January and May setback change proposal. Tew co-owns Tew Inc., an excavation company. Both Tew and Yundt are running for reelection in November.
By ordinance, the new setback panel includes representatives from the borough’s fish and wildlife and planning commissions; the Mat-Su salmon habitat partnership; two stormwater abatement experts; the homebuilder or mortgage industry; and three at-large members.
Several people spoke during public testimony Tuesday evening in opposition of Misty Massie, selected by DeVries to represent the homebuilder or mortgage industry, saying she represented a clear conflict of interest for Yundt. Massie is identified on Yundt’s website as one of his company’s two preferred lenders.
Yundt in comments during the meeting agreed that Massie’s inclusion does present an appearance of conflict, but he said no actual conflict exists because he does not have an active business relationship with her and didn’t know he has a business website.
“What website? I know that sounds crazy,” he said. “This website was set up by a Realtor over five years ago that my wife fired three years ago.”
Yundt and assembly member Stephanie Nowers, whose district includes Palmer, voted to drop Massie from the panel. However, the rest of the assembly voted to approve her appointment.
Massie did not respond to a request for comment.
The advisory panel will select its own meeting schedule and present recommendations to the assembly in September 2024.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the scope of the setback advisory board. The board may examine setback rules for all Mat-Su Borough water bodies, not just lakes.