Critics blast land swap

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2000

Two men greeted an acquaintance before the start of a fiery meeting between Douglas residents and city officials Wednesday night:

``What're you doing here? You live in Juneau.''

``Yeah. That's over the bridge. Where's your passport?''

Tight-knit doesn't begin to describe Douglas.

Some residents of the former township met at the Douglas library to register their unanimous condemnation of a proposed land swap between the city and the Alaska Mental Health Lands Trust.

A half-dozen city and trust officials and about 70 residents attempted to hash out issues of planning, development density, and a perceived lack of public notification surrounding the swap of 50 acres of the trust's Switzer Creek property for 134 acres of the city's wild Douglas uplands.

Only half the swap is a done deal, said Douglas resident Doug Mertz.

The city has title to the Switzer Creek acreage and has ceded 10 acres of the total 50 to the Alaska National Guard for its new armory. The rest of that parcel is slated for housing development.

``The city could now choose to pay the trust ($900,000) for the Switzer property,'' Mertz said. ``Or it could swap another piece of land or even delete the two-thirds of the Douglas property that is not developable.''

But trust land office Executive Director Steve Planchon objected that all the other parcels the city put up for consideration were not what the trust wanted.

Under questioning about the trust's intentions, Planchon said the process is about a change in ownership, and is not a development plan.

Asked whether the trust would accept the cash instead of the land, Planchon answered with a flat ``yes,'' and was applauded.

``If the city cannot convey the land, the city will pay,'' said city Lands Director Steve Gilbertson.

Assembly member Jim Powell, however, seemed to have a tighter grip on the $900,000. ``We would look at all other options first,'' he said.

The Land Management Plan adopted by the Juneau Assembly in February 1995 identified the Douglas land for disposal.

The city Planning Commission conducted a public hearing on disposal of the Douglas property to the trust in September 1999. A month later, the Douglas Service Area Advisory board reviewed it.

The Douglas audience's questioning nevertheless registered a consensus that residents had not been properly notified.

``The bottom line is nobody until recent weeks knew the scope and effect of the swap,'' Mertz said.

On communication between the city and its citizens, ``we do a pretty good job,'' said Powell. ``But sometimes we miss the mark.''

The city could delay action on the swap, send the deal back to the Planning Commission or tweak the plan itself, he said.

The assembly will begin consideration of the swap when the deal is introduced at its next meeting, on Jan. 24.

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