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Neighborhoods divided on Mendenhall Peninsula sewer extension idea

Posted: November 16, 2011 - 1:05am

The Mendenhall Peninsula area of Juneau is one of the remaining neighborhoods in the borough’s service area that doesn’t have sewer service. In rough polling at a public meeting Tuesday night of about 100 people, opinions were divided.

About two-thirds of the people attending the meeting lived in the Fritz Cove area, while 1/3 lived in Engineer’s Cutoff.

The city hasn’t drafted any formal plans for sewer service extension, however the engineering department is tasked with gauging the neighborhoods’ desires. City Engineering Director Rorie Watt explained the complications and issues involved with potentially expanding sewer service.

Watt said extending the sewer system is rather expensive and the project would likely cost at least $14 million. The challenge with the Mendenhall Peninsula area is the topography. People living on beachfront property would have to purchase and maintain pumps because gravity systems would not be feasible. People up the hill would typically only have connection costs.

Watt said another issue is, traditionally, the Assembly increases zoning designations in areas with Local Improvement District upgrades. That would mean this area — which is zoned D-1 and has a fairly rural feel — would likely be rezoned to D-5 to increase the number of residents. This increases the amount of revenue the city earns as more people hook up to the sewer service and allows them to pay off the investment.

Watt said this type of development also tends to trigger more development of undeveloped land.

“Typically people are happy with the zoning of their neighborhood and typically happy with the level it’s built out,” Watt said. “Sewer extensions to collect money and offset operations and maintenance costs, we need lots of customers. We need a density. In the existing neighborhoods you have some nice large lots, which means not very many customers. Extension to sewer is likely to trigger land development. For a tax purpose it’s a good thing.”

He said it’s also good because property values are lower for more purchasing and development opportunities.

“For immediate neighborhoods that can be particularly unappealing,” Watt said.

Watt was asked if the neighborhoods said “no” if the city would go ahead anyway.

“I don’t think so,” Watt said. “There’s a lot of issues with sewer extensions. It costs a lot of money. If the neighborhood said its not interested, you probably won’t hear from us.”
Property owner cost in LID’s is typically low. The most recent project, Watt said, the cost was about $2,600 per property, though the amount for a project here would need to be estimated and negotiated with the Assembly.

Cost to a homeowner who has to purchase a pump goes up by at least $3,500. Connection costs also are incurred, which depend upon where the home is in relation to the property line nearest the hookup. People also would have to decommission their existing service.

Watt said this would not require a new treatment plant because the new Mendenhall plant has the capacity to handle the waste.

One man asked if this was an “all or nothing” issue — where if the majority of people overall said no then it wouldn’t happen — or if it depended upon the location. Watt said it would be possible to limit the extension. Another asked if they could design it so that people who are not downhill can connect but those on the waterfront would have the option (they would need to pump to connect). Watt said that could be another option, but the likelihood of an exception being made may not be good since the city code says that once the city extends sewer to an area, all properties must connect. Watt said the city has chosen to not spend its resources in policing sewer systems outside of its own service.

“It’s local government, local decision making,” Watt said. “It would be unusual, but I don’t know.”

Watt was asked about a timeline and “next steps.” He said the timeline is very rough and everything depends upon neighborhood response. If the answer is an “overwhelming no,” then the issue is likely to die. If the answer is mixed or a more clear “yes,” then engineering develops the project a little more and works with the Public Works and Facilities Committee and Assembly.

Also, if it’s a “yes,” funding is the other element. In the past the city has gotten significant grant funding, however Juneau isn’t remotely high on the list for funding ­— rural communities and Anchorage are. The city would seek voter support for part of the 1 percent temporary sales tax.

Neighborhood support wasn’t clear in straw-polling conducted by Watt. He asked simply if people supported sewer — with no other qualifiers. About half raised their hands. He asked the opposite question and got about the same amount of hands. He asked if there was support for sanitation improvements, but not extension of sewer services — again half and half. Watt asked if the group supported higher development in their neighborhoods — laughter was his response with no raised hands. Watt expected that.

He also asked of those supportive of sewer, if they would be willing to pay a higher percentage to not have their property rezoned. Fewer were supportive of sewer extension in that scenario.

One man had testified that with the city’s change in the land use code, higher density than the area is used to is already allowed. If the city rezones with the sewer expansion that density would dramatically increase.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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