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Anchorage ordinance must fail: Citizens, not airport, control Pt. Woronzof Park

When the Anchorage airport was established in the 1950s, most of Point Woronzof was forested and used year-round for recreation. The Anchorage General Plan adopted in 1961 designated the entire area unoccupied by the airport as "Metropolitan Park." In 1970, a joint city-borough initiative called Breakthrough Anchorage urged the dedication of the "Point Woronzof Recreation Area." Even after the airport's north-south runway was built in the late 1970s, the west side of Point Woronzof was designated Parks and Open Space in the municipality's comprehensive development plans. Since the 1980s, the area has hosted one of the most wooded and scenic stretches of the Coastal Trail.

Given this history, residents of West Anchorage and Coastal Trail users from across the city were caught by surprise in 1994 when Mayor Tom Fink sought to trade 129 acres of Point Woronzof to Anchorage International Airport for roads and warehouses. In exchange, the municipality would receive 40 acres south of Raspberry Road for a new Sand Lake elementary school. The airport insisted that it could not let go of the Raspberry land without receiving the full Point Woronzof acreage, and the municipality joined in lockstep to convince the public that Sand Lake could not get its much-needed school unless the trade went through.

Despite the combined efforts of the airport and municipality to make the trade politically palatable, the plan outraged many in Anchorage who saw it as an unnecessary giveaway of a priceless and irreplaceable community asset. Concerned citizens, including ourselves, founded Friends of the Coastal Trail, which worked to protect the natural integrity of the trail. Members attended commission meetings, met with officials, testified at Assembly hearings, and helped collect more than 10,000 signatures of residents who opposed the trade. We also supported a compromise: dividing the Point Woronzof parcel in a manner that would give both the airport and trail users enough land to protect their respective interests. In July 1994, we met with new Mayor Rick Mystrom and then-Gov. Wally Hickel to help forge an agreement that traded the lands adjacent to the north-south runway to the airport but dedicated the remaining acreage as "permanent municipal parkland." The Assembly endorsed the plan, which was widely hailed as a win-win outcome, and Point Woronzof Park was created.

But the airport kept the park in its cross-hairs. Today, in a last-minute fast-track effort before Mayor Dan Sullivan leaves office, airport and municipal officials are endorsing an ordinance before the Anchorage Assembly (AO 2015-69) that would place the "undedication" of Point Woronzof Park on the ballot within the next two years. And why would we need to undedicate this beautiful protected coastline in such a rush? First, so the airport can obtain land for a runway it admits it won't need anytime soon, and may never need. And second, so the city can continue to lease a snow dump site on land the airport owns, for which it admits it has no current need.

Anchorage deserves better. Rejecting the deal will not impede airport growth and operations or harm the economy. And other options exist for ensuring continued municipal use of the snow dump site. In 1994, Sand Lake got its school site notwithstanding the airport's posturing, and the same should happen now.

Endorsing a trade of priceless and irreplaceable coastline for a snow dump lease is outrageous in itself. But contempt for public process and citizen involvement is the ordinance's greatest affront. Several provisions are designed to sharply curtail citizen influence over future decisions about the park and the Coastal Trail. First, the municipality and airport commit to working together to "educate" Anchorage residents about the importance of "undedicating" Point Woronzof Park. In other words, municipal and state resources will be used to maintain a political campaign against any citizens of Anchorage who support preserving the park. Second, provisions specifically bar "third party interests" from having any rights under the land exchange agreement, effectively silencing the citizen voices that helped create the park in the first place. And third, provisions for "public input" on the future design and routing of the Coastal Trail are vague and easily circumvented, giving the airport near total control of one of our community's most treasured natural landscapes.

In 1994, concerned citizens of Anchorage created a legacy for future generations that is now threatened for no good reason. If you value the existing Coastal Trail, support parks or care about fair public process, we urge you to speak up. Contact your Assembly member or attend the Assembly hearing on Tuesday. We've proven before that we can shape the city we want to live in, and it's time to do so again.

Jim Reeves, an attorney, and Dirk Sisson, a small business owner, are long-time Anchorage residents and founding members of Friends of the Coastal Trail, a group that worked to create Point Woronzof Park.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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