My Turn: Buying land can be sound public policy

Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2001

I appreciate Assembly member Dale Anderson's attempt to inform the voters about a recent decision by the Juneau Assembly. Unfortunately, Mr. Anderson failed to present all the facts behind the Assembly's decision to purchase land in the Mendenhall Valley for "a library or other public purposes."

Mr. Anderson failed to mention that CBJ voters approved buying additional land for a Valley library in 1983. In 1985, the city purchased three acres at Dimond Park for a future library. When the city started planning for the new high school and recreation center at Dimond Park, however, there wasn't enough land for a library, too. The Assembly's vote to purchase land at Riverside and Egan makes good on this promise made to Juneau voters over 15 years ago.

Second, the author misquoted my amendment (which passed unanimously) which added "or other public purpose" to the ordinance. I proposed this language knowing that the city needs voter approval before building any large public facility such as a library. If the voters fail to approve the construction of a new library, the land would still be appropriate for some future public use, such as a Valley ice rink or transit center.

Third, Mr. Anderson inappropriately calls this purchase "speculation." The city has no intention of selling this land for a higher price as implied by the word "speculation." This word also undercuts the thorough process used by the Lands Committee to decide to purchase this land. The Lands Committee took several months and asked for detailed analysis before agreeing to the purchase. Part of the analysis we requested showed that there is a severe need for space at the Valley library. Just to meet the needs of Valley users, we need to more than double the size of the current library.

Another study looked at three separate parcels available for purchase in the lower valley and ranked them for usefulness. The Lands Committee used all of this information, plus recommendations from local and statewide library associations and the CBJ Library Department, in making our decision.

Fourth, the author correctly states that the Assembly has agreed to purchase over 40 acres of land during the last year. But he fails to let voters know that the vast majority of this land - 35 acres - is land the city purchased to gain access to our lands in Upper Lemon Creek. Buying this land gives us perpetual access rights to our future gravel pit and other developable lands.

These lands will lower the cost of city projects by supplying affordable gravel and produce revenue once available for development. Other lands we've purchased include open space at Amalga and Tee harbors, warehouse facilities for the high school, and land for airport expansion and sewer improvements.

We've also given staff direction in preparing additional CBJ lands for sale. At the top of our list are city lands at Lena Point and near the Auke Rec Bypass. Unfortunately, the city doesn't have many small parcels of land that we can sell on short notice. Most of those parcels have already been sold by a previous Assembly. The remaining CBJ lands are in large tracts, and require a public review process before disposal.

We also need to build roads and install utilities before lots can be developed. For instance, before we sell any land at Lena Point or Auke Rec, we need to design the sewer system that will handle both developments.

The CBJ Lands Committee has done a lot of solid work this year planning for Juneau's land needs. The decision to buy land near Riverside and Egan is only one example. The fact remains that there is a shortage of city land in the Valley available for public uses. The simple fact that we couldn't accommodate all the needed uses in Dimond Park demonstrates this point.

There is little question that we will need land in the Valley for a library or other public uses in the future. We need to plan now for that reality. That's why buying centrally-located, buildable land in the Valley now, when we have the chance, is sound public policy.

Marc Wheeler serves on the Juneau Assembly and chairs its Lands Committee.

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