The commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources has joined state and local elected officials in calling for better protection for private property owners in a comprehensive plan dealing with access to Chugach State Park.
The planning document, developed jointly by the state and the Municipality of Anchorage, has in recent weeks stirred controversy over how it dedicates future public access into the park, most of which lies within municipal boundaries. The document's supporters include mountaineering and conservation groups.
But property owners, particularly in the Chugiak-Eagle River area, have voiced strong concern over "red dots" on the plan's maps that identify potential park access points on private land.
State officials had previously resisted efforts to remove or prioritize the "red dots," or unsecured access points, noting that those access points were not certain. They described the maps, dotted with blue and red, as an inventory of existing and potential access points, the culmination of a vast, multiyear scoping effort.
Anchorage city planners say the Chugach Access Plan is intended to offer a legal framework for dedicating future park access. The city's rewritten land-use code, Title 21, specifically references the access plan and says the city platting authority "shall require" access through the points identified in the plan.
In a phone interview Tuesday, DNR Commissioner Joe Balash joined a chorus of officials who say they'd like to see Title 21 amended to soften or clarify such language.
If the access plan is approved at next week's Anchorage Assembly meeting without resolving the Title 21 questions, Balash said, he intends -- in his capacity as commissioner -- to remove the "red dots" from the plan.
"For the Parnell administration, access to our state parks is a very, very high priority," Balash said. "But it doesn't trump our commitment to protecting private-property rights."
Balash said he had previously viewed the issue only from the side of ensuring dedicated access to the park. He said he reconsidered his position after being contacted by lawmakers representing affected areas.
The Anchorage Assembly has twice delayed a decision on the plan, most recently in order to send it to the six-member Chugiak-Eagle River Advisory Board for a procedural review. On Saturday, the advisory board's meeting to discuss the plan was packed.
"We heard from a whole lot of really upset property owners," said former Assembly member Debbie Ossiander, who chairs the advisory board.
She said 32 people testified, including a handful of people who weren't aware their property was on the plan until they saw the maps. Balash also attended the meeting, as well as Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, the chief of staff for Rep. Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, and Assembly member Amy Demboski, who represents Chugiak-Eagle River.
The advisory board is now recommending that the planning department delete all the "red dots" in Chugiak-Eagle River. The board also recommends changing the language in Title 21 so it doesn't imply land-use permits can be held up until access is granted nor place burdens on landowners to show equivalent access elsewhere, Ossiander said.
Senior planner Thede Tobish said the planning department has been talking internally about the concerns and confusion that have come up during the Assembly process. He said a range of options are being considered, including clarifying language in Title 21.
The Assembly is scheduled to decide whether to take action on the plan at its meeting Wednesday.