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Story Last modified at 11:10 p.m. on Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Municipality opens Eagle River Lane
Locals want 'sub-standard' road closed as soon as possible

BY ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Star

photo:News

A car drives up Eagle River Lane just south of Ptarmigan Boulevard in mid-December. The municipality's decision earlier this month to open the road to public access even though it's not yet built to municipal standards is creating controversy.
STAR PHOTO by Zaz Hollander

For the first time, a new, unpaved extension of Eagle River Lane between Ptarmigan Boulevard and Highland Ridge Drive is officially open to the driving public.

But some residents are greeting the enhanced access with protest rather than parades.

Though the extension was at least temporarily built only for emergency vehicles, the municipality removed those restrictions last month. Officials say they did so out of safety concerns because drivers paid no attention to signs restricting traffic even as local children played on the road, which isn't far from Ravenwood Elementary.

Critics including the Eagle River Valley Community Council and Assembly member Bill Starr say the unpaved road isn't safe because it's not up to municipal standard, with sidewalks and paving.

They worry that the flow of traffic could endanger children walking to Ravenwood and also create maintenance headaches.

"I'm frustrated with that solution," said Starr. "I've been working that topic for eight years. I'm very frustrated."

Eagle Crossing developer Connie Yoshimura said she basically inherited the situation when her company, CYI, acquired the subdivision five or six years ago.

Here's the history:

The municipal platting board originally required the extension of Eagle River Lane to satisfy concerns about emergency access and evacuation routes.

Anchorage Fire Department officials said they could be delayed by five minutes without a second way in and out of Eagle Crossing. There are about 275 homes in the subdivision, with plans for another 275.

But the timeline to finish the extension slipped as a slow housing market delayed construction on the subdivision, according to municipal documents.

Then, last August, the road opened with signs restricting traffic to emergency vehicles. At this point, as far as the platting board is concerned, gravel's not good enough: The board has required Eagle Crossing develop the subdivision from Ptarmigan to Highland Ridge to municipal standards by November. Yoshimura this week said she hopes to delay that requirement.

Here's what started the current flap:

Last month, municipal officials ordered the extension open to all traffic and took down the signs.

Anchorage police started getting reports that "kids were sledding in the road and that private vehicles were routinely ignoring the signs and driving through," municipal manager George Vakalis wrote in an e-mail last month.

The road was opened for motor vehicles and closed for sledding, Vakalis wrote.

In mid-December, the community council asked the municipality to again restrict traffic to emergency vehicles only. The issue is on the council's agenda for Jan. 12.

The council's resolution requests the action in the interest of public safety because the extension "has not been built to municipal standards, only constructed for emergency access."

The Anchorage School District and Ravenwood staff are "working with the parents and students who live in this area to ensure that the kids understand where they can and cannot be when they walk to Ravenwood," Vakalis wrote.

The extension isn't that different from many other roads children travel, he continued.

"What is different is the kids' current perception that this is a play area rather than a road."

There are also concerns from the Chugiak-Birchwood-Eagle River Rural Road Service Area board about maintaining a dirt road not up to urban standards.

Right now, the road is snow-covered.

"If we get 40-degree weather and then it starts freezing ... there's some risk involved," said CBERRRSA board member Bill Holland. "The plan forward is what the community hasn't heard yet. We're anxious to hear what that information is."

The road is built to standard – for a gravel road, Vakalis pointed out. Additional work would be necessary to bring the road to an urban standard, he said.

CYI project manager Ric Davidge said two obstacles could make that difficult. For one, widening the current road will involve filling in wetlands, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has expressed reluctance to approve a permit to do so, he said.

For another, the city and property owner Bill Hanaway are still struggling with "trespass" issues that must be resolved to obtain enough right of way for the project, Davidge said.

Hanaway for years has contended that the city is using part of his property for the extension's right of way. He also claims, among other things, that the urn that once contained his wife's cremated remains was lost when crews started the project. Vakalis, asked about Hanaway's contentions, responded that the city owns the right of way, a determination first made in 1997 and more recently reconfirmed. He did agree, however, that wetlands permitting issues do need to be resolved. Vakalis said the muni is analyzing requests from the road board and plans to get feedback during the Jan. 12 council meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Gruening Middle School.

Yoshimura, for her part, says she's glad to see the road open. But, she said, right now there isn't enough traffic to justify paving and other upgrades to bring the road to urban standard. She plans to return to the platting board with a traffic count to demonstrate that no further improvements are necessary. Yoshimura said the city's decision to open – which she said she did not discuss with any officials beforehand – would appear to work in her favor.

"The fact that the city opened the road indicates it is a road that is passable and it can be used for a moderate amount of traffic," she said.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 5, 2011.