City, airport seek to move forward with West Anchorage land swap

Officials plan to ask Anchorage voters to strip the 191-acre Point Woronzof Park of its parkland status so it can be traded to the airport in exchange for a snow dump on Northwood Drive and other real estate.

Under a proposed agreement between the city and the airport, the city would sponsor one or more ballot measures to remove park dedication from the West Anchorage park. The airport is seeking the parkland for a new north-south runway that may be built in the future.

A long-term lease for a snow dump site on Northwood Drive that the city currently rents month-to-month, and officials say is in need of critical upgrades to reduce water pollution threats, is also part of the proposed agreement.

More broadly, the proposed agreement paves the way for a comprehensive land swap that officials say would give the city new public parkland and allow the airport to expand. The deal is subject to ratification by the Anchorage Assembly, where it will be introduced Tuesday.

"There will be further negotiations on the details … but this pretty much puts (the land exchange) in motion," said Jerry Weaver, city planning director.

The land exchange outlined in the agreement could give the city parcels that include land around Little Campbell Lake, Connors Lake Dog Park and the Northwood Drive snow dump site. The airport could get land in Point Woronzof Park, if approved by voters, as well as a block of coastal land south of the popular Point Woronzof overlook and the nearby sewage treatment plant run by the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility.

Point Woronzof Park lies in a wedge west of the airport's north-south runway and north of the east-west runway.

The idea of a land swap dates back decades. In 2008, after a public outcry, the Assembly rejected a land swap that would have allowed the airport to build a new north-south runway and alter the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

Members of the Turnagain Community Council and other groups also opposed the inclusion of a possible land swap in the 2012 West Anchorage District Plan. They say a land trade would threaten the coastal trail and set a bad precedent for dedicated parkland.

Weaver said the current agreement stems directly from the recommendations in the district plan, the land use and development blueprint for the area surrounding the airport, and a report produced in October 2014 by a task force convened by Mayor Dan Sullivan to examine a potential land swap. The task force, which met 10 times and worked with a professional moderator, recommended a partial land exchange in its report as a way to resolve long-standing land use conflicts.

Since then, the members of the city's legal, planning and real estate departments have been working with airport representatives and lawyers to put together the agreement, Weaver said.

City control over the snow dump site is an immediate, pressing issue, Weaver said. Regulators have told the city it is out of compliance with water quality regulations, but the city can't do the fixes without long-term control, said city planner Thede Tobish.

"This is not independent of the land swap, but (the agreement is) written in a way that the muni has the best shot at getting the snow dump for the long term," Tobish said. "We can't emphasize the timing and need for this snow dump (enough)."

Tobish said efforts to reach a separate lease agreement with the airport just for the snow dump have been unsuccessful.

In addition to the snow dump site, the other parcels the city would receive in the swap would become either parkland or permanent neighborhood buffers, Tobish said.

In an interview Thursday, airport manager John Parrott said the airport doesn't have a specific need for the Point Woronzof Park property now. But he said that if an additional runway is ever needed, "that piece of property is very important."

He reiterated that the airport is committed to maintaining a continuous coastal trail in the long term, adding that part of the trail has been on airport property for years without disruption.

The agreement requires the ballot measure on Point Woronzof Park to pass by the end of 2017. It also appears to set a five-year time frame for the conclusion of a land exchange agreement.

Cathy Gleason, a former Turnagain Community Council president who pushed to have Point Woronzof Park dedicated in 1994, had not yet heard of the proposed agreement when contacted last week by a reporter. Gleason has led fierce opposition to the land swap.

Gleason participated in the task force and said it was "unfortunate" she wasn't notified about the agreement before it hit the Assembly agenda, adding that the timing appeared political. She said the task force did not reach a consensus on a land exchange.

"There were a few of us that absolutely refused to endorse a comprehensive land swap that involved trading away Point Woronzof Park and the sewer treatment (plant)," Gleason said.

She also said it's "ironic" that the city officials have sought to preserve parkland through a trade of Point Woronzof Park.

"It's come full-circle how ridiculous this proposal is," Gleason said.

The proposed agreement is set for introduction at Tuesday's Assembly meeting, meaning no action will be taken. A public hearing is expected at the Assembly's June 23 meeting.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.