CHUGIAK — A proposal by the city-owned Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility to build a 3.5-mile water distribution trunk line in the Birchwood Loop area in Chugiak has raised a tempest among local residents who don’t want to hook up for city water.

South Birchwood Loop residents are now on septic systems and water wells. A preliminary estimate of the water line cost is $20 million.

Anchorage’s assembly will meet on the proposal Dec. 19 and either approve AWWU’s request to begin design and planning work or delay the project for further discussions, which is what South Birchwood residents want. If the assembly approves the start of planning a second approval is needed later for work to actually begin.

The project goes ahead it would allow Ekutna, Inc., a large landowner in the area that has been active in residential development, to proceed with a first phase of its “Power Reserve” housing development.

Anchorage faces a serious housing shortage and Eklutna, an Alaska Native village corporation, has been developing its lands in the Chugiak-Eagle River area to ease the shortage. Over several years Powder Reserve could make as many as 1,400 new homes available for Anchorage, although they would be built in increments.

Curtis McQueen, Eklutna’s president, said the corporation has worked hard over several years to be a responsible developer and has donated substantial acreage it owns for greenbelts and schools. Part of AWWU’s water system expansion would allow a new elementary school to be built in the area.

Opponents cite several reasons for opposing the expansion, citing costs as well as construction impacts. “The actual construction of the water transmission line, depending on the route chosen, could be very disruptive to the neighborhood and could mean permanent clearing of some property owners’ wooded areas, changing both views and privacy,” the Birchwood Community Council said in a notice sent to its members and local media.

However, Brett Jokela, AWWU’s general manager, said the exact route of the water extension has yet to be determined – and it would be west of the Birchwood neighborhood – and the utility would work with residents to mitigate construction impacts.

The water also has important safety benefits, he said, by providing water for local firefighting response. Another safety feature is that a cleared right-of-way would provide a fire break as a protection against forest fires, something public officials are acutely concerned with in view of the wildfires that have ravaged California.

In theory Powder Reserve could be served by single-line extension from a connection with the main Eklutna water line at North Eagle River but Jokela said the utility believes a “dead-end” line isn’t good because water quality can suffer at the outer extremity. It’s far better to have a looped line, he said, which the proposed 3.5-mile extension would accomplish with a second connection with the main Eklutna line near Chugiak High School.

This builds resiliency into the system and would also maintain water quality, Jokela said.

South Birchwood’s concerns are mainly concerned about maintaining a rural setting and lifestyle, said Gretchen Wehmhoff, a member of the community council’s task force on the water project. She said the local residents support Eklutna’s development of housing but want to be consulted on new infrastructure needed to support it.

If AWWU proceeds with the project a Water Transmission Improvement District would be established as a way to assess local property owners for the cost of the improvements. The normal procedure is that once the funding is figures out, through the property assessment mechanism, the utility proceeds with construction using its own funds.

AWWU’s annual capital budget is typically $55 million, so a $20 million expansion in the Birchwood area represents a major commitment for the utility.

Eklutna Inc. itself is the biggest landowner in the area that would be affected and would pay 42 percent of any costs. The municipality itself owns about 30 percent of the lands affected and would pay that share.

The remaining 28 percent of the area is owned by residential landowners who would be assessed a share of costs which would be paid in the future if they decide to hook up to the 24-inch transmission line, Jokela said.

Information distributed by the Birchwood Community Council said that the assessment is “levy by connection,” meaning the levy is paid once a hookup is made. Even in the future, it could still be hefty. According to information distributed by the community council an assessment for a 2.5-acre tract in Birchwood could be $40,000 to $50,000, or more.

However, water from the trunk line would not be available, and the assessment paid, until local distribution lines are also built.

Even though this would be a future obligation, and not due until a hookup is made, the community council said some banks and title companies may treat the assessment as a liability and require it to be paid before title to a property is transferred through a sale, the community council said in its published materials.

The matter is unclear, the council acknowleged, because other banks and title companies say it is not a problem.

“Although both the AWWU and the municipality have stated that lenders and title companies will not require the assessment to be satisfied in order to finance a new mortgage if the property is sold, the banks and title institutions we contacted have given varied answers – some would not worry about the assessment, but others would want it cleared,” the council said in its materials.

Wehmhoff said the community council has three problems with the AWWU proposal, the first being poor communication with property owners. The utility contacted the community council only last fall, not the property owners directly, so the South Birchwood residents have been scrambling to find out more about the plan.

“What we’re asking the assembly to do on Dec. 19 is to postpone this so we can discuss it further,” Wehmhoff said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

The second, more fundamental, objection is the plan violates a section on Eagle River and Chugiak in the municipality’s comprehensive plan that says water and sewer will not be extended into low-density neighborhoods, she said.

Her impression, after discussions with AWWU, is that the utility may not be fully aware of the restrictions in the plan. “They’re learning, and we’re learning,” Wehmhoff said, so the process needs more time.   

AWWU serves about 56,000 customers in the Anchorage municipality including about 6,000 commercial water consumers. Girdwood is also served with separate water and sewer facilities but the costs of those are rolled into costs across the municipality so that Girdwood residents get the benefits of economies of scale.

Anchorage receives its water from Eklutna Lake and the Eklutna Water Treatment Plant, which makes the water safe, and at the other end of the system operates three wastewater treatment plants including the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment facility at Point Woronzof, which treats 25 million gallons of wastewater daily. Wastewater from the proposed Eklutna development would be routed to the Eagle River Wastewater Treatment Facility.

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