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Story Last modified at 9:15 p.m. on Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Yosemite East marks entry of new player
Neighbors fault density, privatized open space

Alaska Star

Yosemite East, a nearly 100-home project planned next to Eagle River High School, could be the first of many for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, until now not a major player in the Eagle River development game.

Even this first project, however, has its critics.

The Trust hopes to build 97 homes on 27 acres along Eagle River Loop Road and Yosemite Drive. An adjacent 19-acre parcel that once housed the local garbage dump is slated to become open space owned by the development's homeowner's association.

Trust officials say the project will add $350,000 to $500,000 homes to the Eagle River market while fulfilling the organization's mission to maximize earning potential from Trust lands.

The Trust is a state corporation with a mission to make money from its property to benefit people with mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcoholism, and Alzheimer's disease and related dementia.

But Yosemite East also serves as a prototype for the future, they say – the corporation owns 800 acres south of the high school.

The Trust will be "out there for decades" developing projects of different housing densities, said Tim Spernak, the senior resource manager who manages the Trust's real estate department.

Yosemite East is the first, Spernak said, so "it sets the stage and the tone for what the neighbors and the city can expect in the future from the Trust."

The municipal planning and zoning commission backed the project when it unanimously approved the Trust's request for a rezone on Feb. 7. Under the request, 27 acres suitable for building were rezoned to R-1 with a cap on the number of homes at 97. Another 19 acres slated for recreational uses was rezoned to Public Lands and Institutions.

Commissioners and the public expressed some reservations, though.

Commissioner Connie Yoshimura, a local developer, said she has "a certain amount of frustration" with such a large rezone request ... without a specific plan for the subdivision itself."

A consultant for the Trust – Jim Sawhill, with Lounsbury & Associates – told the commission that the rezone request was triggered not by a development plan but by the need to use part of the site as a fill site for material removed from a project at 30th Avenue and Laurel Street in Anchorage.

"That's what kind of rushed this land-use decision at this time," Sawhill said.

Yoshimura also asked about the traffic count on Yosemite – 3,200 vehicles per day when school is open, according to one count. Sawhill noted that residents now complain about congestion when school gets out.

Current plans call for two accesses on Yosemite, at least 300 feet apart as required, with one closest to the intersection with the Loop Road right turn only, Sawhill said. A traffic study will probably be required.

The South Fork Community Council and the Eagle Pointe Homeowners Association also raised questions about the density and privatization of open space at Yosemite East.

Those concerns weren't addressed by the rezone, council president Andrew Brewer said.

Because the parcel in question was next to a 65-acre tract zoned R1-A, the council and the homeowners argued unsuccessfully for that designation, Brewer said in an e-mail.

Most of the South Fork does not have city sewer and water, so the council was looking for larger lot development. R-1A calls for a minimum lot size of 8,400 square feet and lot width of 70 feet, compared to 6,000 square feet and at least 50 feet wide for the conventional R-1 designation.

Brewer also expressed hesitation at turning the 19-acre parcel into private, open space, but the city and the school district weren't interested in acquiring the parcel.

"In the end, the community sees new compact housing and no benefit from the parkland, at least in the near term," he said.

Eagle Pointe homeowner Karl Von Luhrte testified at the commission hearing about any risk associated with disturbing the former landfill.

Sawhill and Spernak, in a more recent interview, responded to those concerns with a study that showed non-detect levels of methane and a "closure" letter by the state Department of Environmental Conservation that deems no further remediation is necessary.

No fill will be disturbed over the former landfill, both said. Instead, another 80,000 cubic yards of material from the Anchorage site will be put on top of the existing cap, Spernak said.

The two community groups also asked for a 100-foot buffer of trees next to the housing development.

The commission did not require a buffer, which was opposed by the Trust.

Any calls for a buffer can be addressed during the future platting process, Sawhill said.

Before any plat is recorded with the city, a separate project needs to be completed: the upgrade of Yosemite Drive as the state Supreme Court required in a decision last year that denied the Anchorage School District's appeal over what work would be required on the road.

The project will be completed next year at the earliest, said Mike Abbott, the school district's assistant superintendent of support services.

Spernak said Trust representatives tried to address local concerns and made several "pilgrimages" to meet with the community council, and also met with the homeowners association.

The Trust modified its development plans to reflect community concerns over traffic, density, and visual buffers, representatives said.

Spernak, in an interview this week, said the homeowners association will decide what they want to do with the open space, which will be built as three terraces that could house anything from trails to soccer fields or playgrounds. Existing Nordic ski trails on the perimeter of the property will remain in place, at least for now.

"I don't know of any other neighborhoods that have a private playfield," Spernak said. "We think we may sell lots for $1,000 more a lot – it's not a complete offset but it helps."

Reach Zaz Hollander at

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 16, 2011.