I came late to this local land dispute. Until this past week I knew hardly anything about the years-long effort to protect West Anchorage’s Michelle Byrum Memorial Garden and adjacent public lands along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. And while I make no claim to fully understanding this battle’s long and complicated history, I now know enough to join the Turnagain Community Council (TCC) and many area residents in urging the Municipality of Anchorage to keep the garden and neighboring wooded lands in the public domain. That’s where they belong, NOT in the grasp of some already propertied residents who want to expand their own private domains and improve their land’s Cook Inlet views (and value).
The Anchorage Assembly should respond with a resounding “NO” to the “settlement proposal” recently presented to the city – an offer that suggests a purchase price of $200,000 for the entire “parcel” – or $3.40 per square foot. Such a bargain!
Before continuing, some background seems in order. The garden and wooded lands in question border Lyn Ary Park, a popular Turnagain and community parkland that abuts the Coastal Trail between Mile 1 and 1.5. According to the TCC, the city purchased those lands in 1996 for $175,000, in order to settle an earlier lawsuit. Construction of the memorial garden began a couple of years later, as part of an Adopt-the-Park program. Since then, local residents have spent hundreds of volunteer hours expanding, improving, and maintaining the garden.
Meanwhile the adjacent woodlands were part of a larger forested area that provided a natural buffer along the Coastal Trail. It also provided habitat for various wild woodland critters and a place for dog walkers to exercise themselves and their pets. It was one of the few places in Anchorage where I have seen a red fox and it also frequently provided a refuge for a cow moose and her calves as well as various songbirds.
Much of that forested area has been cleared of its trees and other forest inhabitants the past couple of years, both to put in a new wastewater pump station and to prepare for a new subdivision. That this new development will be built in an area where the 1964 earthquake wreaked havoc appears to worry neither the property owners nor municipal officials. I wonder if people who eventually purchase lots and/or homes in this area will be informed of the dangers? But that’s another story, I suppose.
While much of the former woodland is gone, a smaller natural buffer zone still exists along the Coastal Trail. Many of the people I know who use the trail greatly appreciate the remaining (and ever dwindling) natural areas that it borders or passes through in this mostly developed neighborhood.
In December 2007, a group of people who own lots in the so-called Marston-Foraker development (that subdivision to be) filed a lawsuit against the municipality. They claimed ownership of the lands the city purchased in 1996, while asserting that the boundaries of their properties should extend all the way to the shoreline of Cook Inlet. After a judge ruled against the property-owning plaintiffs on the first of their two claims, the city in 2009 moved for a summary judgment on the remaining one.
Perhaps anticipating they could very well lose that second claim as well, the Marston-Foraker bunch obtained a stay of the litigation and instead decided to attempt a purchase of the disputed lands. This strategy eventually led to a Jan. 11, 2011 letter from the group’s attorney to the city’s Department of Law, proposing a $200,000 payment for the garden and forested lands. If it hasn't already the group will soon take its offer to the Anchorage Assembly for consideration.
Among other things, in making their offer the landowner plaintiffs say they would convey an easement for the Coastal Trail, which of course is very generous of them. They also vow to leave a 25-foot-wide buffer along the trail “in a natural state” – except, that is, for “alders and cottonwoods or any other tree that hampers a direct view from a home towards the inlet.” In other words, they’re willing to leave some ground-hugging plants while chopping down the rest of the woods. And we’re to believe what remains will be in a “natural state”?
None of that really matters, because the city shouldn’t sell these lands for any price, especially given the history of this place and its clear value to the larger neighborhood. This is public land and it should remain so, for the common good, the greater good.
Though I haven’t been involved in this dispute until now, I’ve lived in the neighborhood a few years. Along with my collie mix, Coya, and sometimes joined by friends, I often walk the stretch of Coastal Trail that borders Lyn Ary Park, the garden, and neighboring forest lands; it’s a place that brings me pleasure. Sometimes I also walk through the park or the much-diminished woods. I used to pass through the larger forested patch, until it was denuded. That was sad enough, yet another incremental loss of natural space. In summer I’ve seen the volunteers working hard to keep up the memorial garden and now and then throughout the year I still see moose in the remaining woods, a much smaller but still valuable refuge.
Two community councils with special interest in this area have opposed the sale (the nearby South Addition Community Council voiced unanimous support for the TCC’s 2010 “Resolution Opposing Sale of Lyn Ary Park Michelle Byrum Memorial Garden Property, which gives much of the context for this land issue).
Given the latest push for a sale, there is a renewed and enlarged community effort to protect these public lands. I encourage local residents to contact the mayor’s office and Anchorage Assembly members (you can get links to contact information through the Municipality of Anchorage website ). And tell them to say “NO” to the proposed sale, for the good of the neighborhood and, I would argue, the larger community. It’s that simple.