Questions over USPS policy throw Mat-Su cluster mailbox holders into limbo

PALMER — Confusion over a U.S. Postal Service policy in Palmer is leaving some residents without mail delivery and raising questions about the longstanding use of rented neighborhood mailboxes in the Mat-Su area.

At issue is mail delivery to the locked, metal mailbox tower systems known as cluster box units installed on streets in or near neighborhoods. An alternative to the traditional non-locking mailbox, the towers deter mail theft and are less likely to be knocked over by wayward cars and snowplows.

Used by thousands of Alaskans, the boxes are placed in designated road pull-offs, often next to traditional-style mailboxes mounted on individual posts.

In some cities, including Anchorage, many cluster boxes are owned and managed by the U.S. Postal Service. Others are managed by a patchwork of owners including homeowners associations, subdivision developers and small groups of residents.

But Mat-Su is home to yet a different kind of neighborhood mailbox system: cluster boxes leased to users slot-by-slot by private businesses. At least 4,000 individual mail slots housed in about 250 towers are owned by a pair of Mat-Su businesses, which rent them out to residents through annual contracts — a practice the business owners say has been allowed by local post office officials for decades.

Matanuska Mailboxes, owned by Ashley Vance, began leasing cluster boxes to Mat-Su residents in 2006. Mailboxes-R-Us, owned by Scott Lapiene, began operations in 2009 as Alaska post office officials looked to shift Mat-Su residents from a rural route address system to the now ubiquitous street and house numbers.

But Vance and Lapiene say they now have concerns that a limited delivery stop ordered by the new Palmer postmaster, Matthew Carey, could eventually shut down the entire system, eliminating about 250 rented towers used by roughly 4,000 customers. They say the controversy already affects at least 100 Palmer-area residents, many of whom are in the process of getting cluster boxes set up.


Carey told the Anchorage Daily News he could not comment on the situation and referred all questions to a Postal Service spokesperson.

Fine before, illegal now?

The issues seemed to start this fall after Carey took over as the postmaster in Palmer in late summer and started telling members of the public that the rented cluster boxes violate Postal Service policy, according to residents, builders and mailbox company owners interviewed for this story.

Lawyers with the Postal Service say renting out cluster boxes is legal, said James Boxrud, a U.S. Postal Service spokesperson based in Colorado.

But Carey has been telling Palmer residents otherwise, for reasons that weren’t immediately clear.

Since at least mid-September, Carey has refused to approve any new cluster box installations or corresponding new address requests because the mailbox rental business model is illegal, Vance and Lapiene said the postmaster told them.

“He told us renting boxes is illegal,” Vance said. “He’s not letting me or anyone else put up mailboxes.”

One Palmer resident said Carey told her last week that the Postal Service plans to sue the cluster box rental companies, including Vance at Matanuska Mailboxes, because they are operating illegally.

Because of ongoing mail delivery problems, Rachel Bendit, who moved into The Ranch subdivision in 2021, had been renting a post office box in Palmer while also paying Vance for the cluster box. Carey suggested she continue to rent the P.O. box, which costs about $275 a year, because otherwise she could lose mail service.

“He said the post office is suing Matanuska Mailboxes and that it would not be a good idea for me to close my P.O. box because he wants to make sure that I get my mail,” she said.

Carey and Tim Bruno, a Postal Service district director for Alaska, referred all Anchorage Daily News questions about post office operations — including the legality of the boxes — to Boxrud, the Postal Service spokesperson.

Boxrud said he is not aware of any proposed legal action.

“To my knowledge there is no such lawsuit,” he said.

Vance and Lapiene, who also sell the box towers to residents and developers who want to provide their own management, said Carey would not give them a copy of a policy that outlaws their business.

Lapiene said if their rental businesses are deemed illegal, they will be forced to remove the boxes completely, leaving about 4,000 addresses without a delivery location. Those customers would then have their mail held while they installed their own mailboxes or have their mail sent elsewhere, he said.

The pair of mailbox company owners say they have yet to receive any notice that they must cease operations.

“The fact is if it was illegal, the (inspector general) from the Postal Service or legal department would serve us a paper by certified mail that says, ‘Your business is illegal, you can’t continue, because you broke the law, therefore we’re not going to let you continue breaking the law,’” Lapiene said. “I don’t believe it’s illegal. That’s just something they throw out there trying to sound important.”

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New problem for new homes

There is one ongoing cluster box issue that does violate Postal Service policy, officials said.

Postal Service officials confirmed 25 Palmer-area residents who use rented cluster boxes in new housing developments are currently without mail service. They said that’s because builders in those developments chose to outsource the boxes to Vance and Lapiene, in violation of a mailbox installation and approval agreement between the builders and the Postal Service.

“The Postal Service is exploring the best option to correct the situation, which would not have occurred but for the failure of the developer/builder, for all the impacted customers,” Boxrud said in an email Monday.

But officials with the Mat-Su Home Builders Association, which represents 115 members involved in development, said no policies were violated. They said guidance provided by the post office is “vague” and doesn’t block them from outsourcing box ownership to a third party, including the rental companies or a homeowners association.

Instead, they said Carey has actively blocked cluster boxes for their new development unless they establish potentially costly homeowners associations to manage them, a step many refuse to take because it adds a layer of cost and bureaucracy that many new residents don’t want.

“The developers got ahold of one of the cluster box companies and said they are ready for these boxes and coordinating with the post office — and the postmaster said, ‘Not on my watch,’” said Dave Miller, association president and owner of Summit Builders. “The new postmaster has suggested that we make sure that we put HOAs in every new subdivision just for the sake of cluster boxes. I vehemently oppose that idea.”

‘No federal regulation to disband their usage’

The issue has gotten the attention of state lawmakers.

Eight members of the Alaska House and Senate Mat-Su delegation sent a letter last month to U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola as well as U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, asking them to work with federal officials to restart address and cluster box approvals.


“We join together to write this letter at this time because we believe the USPS needs to work more cooperatively with the contractors and not abandon the cluster-box model for mail delivery in Mat-Su,” the letter states. “There is no federal regulation to disband their usage.”

The letter was signed by Rep. George Rauscher; Sen. David Wilson; Rep. Cathy Tilton; Sen. Shelley Hughes; Rep. DeLena Johnson; Sen. Mike Shower; Rep. Kevin McCabe; and Rep. Jesse Sumner.

Officials with Peltola’s, Murkowski’s and Sullivan’s offices said they have been in contact with senior Postal Service officials and have asked for a resolution.

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Mailbox leasing is a long-used solution for home address delivery in the Mat-Su. Traditional, non-locking mailboxes can be easy targets for mail theft. Rather than deal with groups of their neighbors or pay homeowners association dues for installation and upkeep of the locked towers, which can cost $2,500 each before installation, many residents prefer the leasing option because it means maintenance and upkeep are handled by someone else.

Cluster box rentals cost between about $80 and $130 a year, depending on the provider. Each new cluster box is approved in advance by the postmaster, who gives the box a master key, which is then checked in and out daily by delivery personnel.

The Postal Service is required by law to provide residents with mail delivery to an address approved by the postmaster. Residents in the Mat-Su typically receive delivery to a centralized collection of boxes in or near the subdivision or rural address.

Residents who do not have approved home delivery must instead pick up their mail in person at the post office counter, rent a P.O. box for about $275 a year, or rent a box and mailing address from a registered mailbox service, such as the UPS Store, where annual fees range from $220 to $400, depending on the business.

Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.