Land trust chair Randy Hughey inspects the oily sheen in a trench at the site of the Halibut Point Cottages. He hopes to find a way to mitigate the contamination without passing on the costs to future buyers “who weren’t even born when this happened,” and the city may provide financial assistance. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Contaminated soil has been discovered at the site of the Old City Shops at 1306 Halibut Point Road, where the Sitka Community Land Trust is breaking ground on a neighborhood of cottage homes. The Assembly directed staff to provide $47,000 of financial assistance for soil clean-up by a 4-3 vote. They’ll vote to approve that funding next month.

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The issue of affordable housing hits home for many in Sitka, including those at the Assembly table.

Deputy Mayor Bob Potrzuski is scouting a home for his daughter and having a hard time finding one. “She needs somewhere to live and I’ll be darned if we can find anywhere. If the community land trust is an option and if we’re looking at homes that people can purchase at $169,000, $179,000, or $200,000 to move into, I think that’s a great thing,” Potrzuski said.

Fellow Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz could relate. “I fully understand your children’s position. I’m 32-years-old and not able to purchase a home in this town as a business owner,” he said.

But the two differed on whether the city should give the Sitka Community Land Trust (SCLT) more money to mitigate contaminated soil . The 1306 parcel was polluted over many decades by industrial use and while the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) cleared the area for redevelopment in 2008, this latest discovery has slowed construction

While digging trenches for water and sewer lines this June, SCLT found an oil sheen. They called upon ADEC and hired an environmental engineering firm, Nortech, to evaluate the land further and make recommendations. 

While most of the material is safe to go back in the ground, 120 cubic yards must be dug up and shipped to Juneau. The chemicals weren’t discovered during a 2006 survey of the land by Carson Dorn.

The SCLT will must also be creative about building above petroleum deposits, discovered beneath three of the seven lots. SCLT Chair Randy Hughey told the Assembly the material is safe, but crosses regulatory thresholds.

“We propose the use of helical pilings instead of conventional footings and foundations to avoid digging. That’s the first thing we can do. The other thing is that the trenching to take water, sewer, and electrical services to the seven sites will be very shallow. We’re going to stay above two feet and insulate, to keep from freezing.”

The SCLT requested $62,000 from the Assembly Tuesday night (09-26-17) for this soil remediation work. They have $41,000 of their own money to put towards clean-up, generated from the sale of land to the Pet’s Choice Clinic for a parking lot.

After entering executive session to get legal advice from the city attorney, the Assembly was torn about what to do. If they don’t award the Land Trust this money, the starting price for all seven homes would rise. Hughey estimated that a one-bedroom home (825 sq. feet) would rise from $175,000 to approximately $182,000.

Eisenbeisz said the price bump still made the home affordable. “That’s about half the cost of what a starter home would be in Sitka right now, so to me that’s a very small increase to the cost of doing business.”

Potrzuski then asked Mim McConnell, the Executive Director of the Sitka Community Land Trust, how it felt to ask for more money given SCLT’s contractual obligation to clean up any contaminated soil themselves.

McConnell said, candidly, that it didn’t feel good — that it’s been the school of hard knocks to get this project off the ground. But she also appealed to the Assembly to continue being an active partner in the cottage neighborhood. “We’re not pros at this. We just care a lot. And we’re trying to be smart and careful and just do it right. If all we ever got was seven houses out of that land, we have enough parking legally to make those seven homes work,” McConnell said.

Assembly member Aaron Bean wanted McConnell to know that while he supported the work, he agreed with Eisenbeisz that the city should not absorb this added cost. “There’s a lot of things that need to take place without the intervention of tax dollars being put into this. And I’m not saying it’s not a good idea and it’s not appropriate, but at certain times you have to let the market be what it is,” he said.

Calling in over the phone, Assembly member Tristan Guevin had a different philosophy of government. “I do think it’s government’s responsibility to provide affordable housing. While it’s tough to swallow, I think with the amount of investment you’re asking for from the city, if we can get seven affordable homes out of that, that’s definitely worthwhile. That’s going to benefit Sitka,” Guevin said.

In the end, the Assembly narrowly moved forward with awarding the money. They directed city staff to draft an agreement for $47,000 to the Sitka Community Land Trust. That and a budget ordinance will appear before the Assembly for a vote at their next meeting on October 10th.

Bob Potrzuski, Tristan Guevin, Mayor Matthew Hunter and Kevin Knox voted in favor of the motion. Steven Eisenbeisz, Aaron Bean, and Aaron Swanson voted against.