Cooper Landing development moves forward with public comment
A 1,000-acre parcel of land northwest of Cooper Landing has the potential to become 100 affordable housing units, or maybe a recreation area or wildlife reserve. It all depends on the outcome of a public comment process and a report from a consulting company.
Unit 395, also known as Juneau Bench, is a 2-mile by 1-mile parcel that will soon be bisected by the Sterling Highway Bypass project.
On Tuesday Sept. 20 and Wednesday Sept. 21, the engineering consulting company RESPEC hosted two community open houses in Cooper Landing to gather input from locals about their goals for the parcel.
Unit 395 recently transferred from state to borough management, when it was decided that the highway bypass would travel through the land, according to Marcus Mueller, the borough’s land management officer.
RESPEC staff will use the information they learned at the meetings to author a report that will guide the borough’s plans for the parcel.
Megan Flory, a community and sustainability planner with RESPEC, walked through the Cooper Landing Community Hall, talking through the presentation.
“Starting over here, we have all these little voting frames, so we have agree-disagree statements here, so they read them, take a little blue token, drop them in the different columns, and then it’s hidden so that they’re not biased based on what other folks are saying,” Flory said.
The voting frames include statements like “Unit 395 should be left for conservation and recreation use,” and “providing affordable housing on Unit 395 is desired.”
Thirteen people showed up at the first meeting Tuesday, and a similar number showed up the next day. During the meeting, they were encouraged to share their opinions on different aspects of the project through a series of sticky note comments.
Flory said the community has been somewhat split on their goals for the property — on the first night, the focus was on affordable housing, while on the second night, community members seemed more interested in keeping the area from development for the sake of wildlife.
RESPEC is working on a specific affordable housing report to identify interest and potential. Mueller said affordable land in Cooper Landing is scarce, although he’s not sure of the specific impact that developing Unit 395 into affordable housing will have.
“Certainly if we can add more housing lots to the supply, that can provide maybe a place for some folks to go to,” he said.
Mueller said RESPEC’s report will detail the challenges of affordable housing in the entire Chugach National Forest area, and will provide comparisons to other communities around the country that have found solutions to affordable housing struggles.
Mueller estimates that if they were to go in the direction of creating affordable housing, the space could potentially fit around 100 housing units. That’s substantial, considering that Cooper Landing’s current population clocks in around 350.
He said only about 20% of the area is suitable to develop into housing — the rest is made up of roads, waterways and areas best preserved for wildlife. Although an open land sale is not off the table, Mueller said the community’s goal is not to maximize profits, with something like a land sale at Anchorage housing market prices.
“The idea of there being affordable housing so that people who would work and raise a family in Cooper Landing have a stake, that’s really important and people are talking about it in that way,” he said. “So I expect that that’s gonna be a high priority.”
The community’s comments on development of the land, spread across the wall on sticky notes, reveal mixed opinions. Comments range from excitement about increased recreation opportunity to a note expressing concern about breaking up the current community by creating a new “resort” town.
“It will have an outsized influence on the community for the rest of the community’s existence, and with that comes a lot of opportunities and a lot of question marks,” David Story, a Cooper Landing resident and a member of the local Planning Commission, said.
He said the new parcel is as large as the current community of Cooper Landing, and that’s why it has such a potential to impact the community.
Story said a major concern among residents is that the new parcel will become what has been referred to as “Cooper Landing West” — a community off of the Sterling Highway Bypass not connected to the main community of Cooper Landing.
“The sentiment that seems to be consistent, from what I have heard, is that we don’t want it to be a separate community, we want it to be a part of Cooper Landing,” he said.
Story said the community is steadfast in advocating that any development on Unit 395 would only be accessible via the current Sterling Highway, through Cooper Landing. The goal would be that any residents of the new development would patronize the current businesses and be a part of the Cooper Landing community.
Story said this may be possible thanks to old timber roads that connect the Sterling Highway to the Unit 395 area.
RESPEC is planning to complete its report by next summer, when it will be handed to the borough and made public. Mueller said the timeline moving forward depends on the type of development that people want, and the contents of the report.
He said that planning may align with progress on the highway project, which is set to be completed in 2027.