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Plans for new Mat-Su town site raise concerns

Posted: July 28, 2013 - 9:00pm

JUNEAU — The fastest-growing region in Alaska is planning for a new town site, but some local residents question the location and whether this is a pie-in-the-sky idea.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is working on a conceptual plan for Point MacKenzie, near the new Goose Creek prison, that calls for a plaza, parks, school, air strip and a mix of housing that includes high-density neighborhoods. Planning is in the early stages but is aimed at getting ahead of the continued growth the borough expects to see, borough chief of planning Lauren Driscoll said.

The proposed town site — which she said is about the size of Palmer and on borough land — is also near a game refuge, port and a rail extension project that conservationists have tried to block, intended to allow for minerals and bulk goods to more easily be transported to and from Interior Alaska. Work is underway on the rail project, which has gotten funding from the state, though it will need more money to be completed.

Some residents and landowners in the Point MacKenzie community, which is unincorporated, say they aren’t against development but it needs to be done thoughtfully. They say the community once proposed a town site several miles from the location currently under consideration. They worry about the impact on wetlands and a wildlife corridor if the town is built at the site proposed by the borough.

Concerns have been raised, too, with the stigma of being a town next to a prison and that this could become another big idea that didn’t pan out. Residents point out that the borough has been trying to unload a $78-million ferry, once seen as a way to shorten the commute to Anchorage across Knik Arm, because it can’t afford to build the necessary landing sites on either side of the route.

The borough also supports the Knik Arm bridge, a project that’s been talked about for years and would create new opportunities for business development, supporters say. Critics have questioned the need, given in part the remoteness of the Point MacKenzie area and lack of existing infrastructure there, and a legislative audit earlier this year found problems with the project’s tolls and revenues. The group behind the project, the state-created Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, has asked a consultant to review its data.

“This build-it-and-they-will-come attitude has got to stop,” said Tammy Windsor, a full-time Point MacKenzie resident, who wants to see studies on the feasibility and environmental impact of developing the town site.

“I don’t see the numbers of people moving into the area until there’s a lot more out here for them,” she said.

Point MacKenzie is rural, with limited development and services. Windsor said it’s a 50-minute drive for groceries in Wasilla. Tara Oney, another resident, said she schools her daughter at home because the nearest school is about an hour’s drive. But residents like the solitude and lifestyle. They’re starting to hear the noise from the railroad work, and Oney said the light pollution from the prison in the wintertime, when it’s darker, is “ridiculous.”

Oney said she feel the prison and railroad projects were pushed through and worries about how great a voice local residents will have as the town-site proposal progresses.

Development in the area is probably inevitable, “but we just want thoughtful development,” she said, adding: “Nobody’s going to want to visit a town that’s right next to a prison.”

Driscoll said the borough will be working with local residents, land owners and developers as the project develops. She said officials have been hearing from the public and wanted to know what concerns were out there before delving into studies.

Driscoll said the wetlands and wildlife corridor will be looked at more closely. One of the borough’s main goals is to accommodate the wetlands and slough with so-called “green belts” that would serve as wildlife corridors and recreational trails, she said.

The community plan mainly involved private land, and multiple owners, she said. As far as any physical constraints, she couldn’t say if one site would be easier to develop than the other, since planners hadn’t studied the other site.

She said the location of the prison is relevant to the discussion but doesn’t consider it a deal breaker.

Even without the bridge, she said this is an area people are moving toward, noting its beauty and access to outdoor recreation. The borough grew by about 50 percent between 2000 and 2010, making it the fastest-growing area of Alaska during that time. The borough had about 94,000 residents in 2012, according to U.S. Census estimates, adding nearly 5,000 people since 2010.

“There’s a lot of talk about the ‘bridge to nowhere,’ but that area isn’t nowhere to us,” Driscoll said. “It’s definitely somewhere, and that’s where our population is moving toward, so we’re preparing for that, whether there’s a bridge or not.”

Driscoll said if the bridge isn’t built in the next few years, it will just take more time to develop the town. To not consider a future with a bridge would be short-sighted, because more than likely there will be a bridge someday, she said.

It’s not yet clear what will happen with the bridge. While the governor and some area lawmakers support advancing the project, legislators put the brakes on a bill to help do that following the audit and attempts in the waning days of the session to overhaul the bridge and toll authority. The idea was to provide more time to take a look at the issue.

Online:

Matanuska-Susitna Borough planning page for Point MacKenzie: http://bit.ly/1aRodjY

Point MacKenzie Community Council: http://bit.ly/135UBKD

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