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Anchorage Assembly OKs Holtan Hills large-scale housing development in Girdwood

Jan. 25—The Municipality of Anchorage is moving ahead with Holtan Hills, a large-scale project to bring a new residential housing development to Girdwood — and one that many of the community's residents have fiercely opposed.

In an 9-3 vote on Wednesday, the Anchorage Assembly approved the transfer of 60 acres of municipal land from the city's Heritage Land Bank and into the hands of a local private development company. Discussion on the measure began during a long meeting Tuesday evening, and extended into another meeting on Wednesday.

The mixed-density residential development could bring more than 100 homes, duplexes, condominiums and townhomes to the swath of land northwest of Alyeska Resort. The project is set to unfold in three phases over the next several years, with the first phase of Holtan Hills allowing 58 housing units to be built.

Wednesday's vote marks a crucial step for the Holtan Hills project, which has been stalled since last February, when Assembly members narrowly voted down the same measure for the land disposal. The vote also comes as Anchorage grapples with a housing shortage, rapidly rising rents, home prices and low vacancy rates.

The housing crisis, at its core, is a supply and demand issue, and the only way to solve it "is more supply," Assembly member Kevin Cross said.

The Heritage Land Bank will split profits with the land developer, CY Investments, owned by Anchorage realtor and residential land developer Connie Yoshimura. CY Investments is responsible for the zoning and development of the land into "shovel-ready" lots to be sold to homebuilders or private parties.

The proposal last year saw an outpouring of opposition from residents of the small ski resort community, which is a part of the municipality but a roughly 45-minute drive southeast of the Anchorage Bowl. They said the Holtan Hills project will do little to address a critical need for housing that is affordable for local workers and families.

Girdwood community leaders say that, one year later, the same fears about Holtan Hills remain.

Homes or rentals for Girdwood residents are scarce, and often too expensive, community leaders and residents said. A large portion of the community's current housing stock has been gobbled up by short-term rentals or vacation homes.

"There's never been more housing in Girdwood before today. Yet it's never been more difficult for somebody that works in Girdwood to buy or rent a home than it is today," said Brooks Chandler, Girdwood resident, during public testimony on Tuesday. "The reason is that the vast majority of new homes being built in Girdwood become either second homes... or are investment properties for short-term rentals. "

Several testifiers, including members of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors, called for the Assembly to postpone its vote until after Girdwood publishes its comprehensive plan, which includes for land use. It expects to make public a draft of the plan at the end of next month, they said.

But proponents of Holtan Hills — Mayor Dave Bronson, several Assembly members and the developer, Yoshimura — all say that Holtan Hills will help to relieve some of the pressure in Girdwood's especially tight housing market.

"Our community has been battling a housing crisis, and the need for development is more apparent than ever," Bronson said.

The measure included a few terms that Assembly members added to help address concerns of Girdwood residents: One of the multi-family housing parcels developed in the project's first phase will be gifted to a Girdwood nonprofit or housing trust to build at least eight units of more affordable housing.

Many Girdwood residents, during public testimony, said eight units isn't enough. In response, Assembly members designated an additional property to go to a Girdwood entity. That property will be either a multi-family or single family lot from any of the projects three phases.

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"This is another example of us trying to listen to the community and carve out potential for collaboration with Girdwood," Assembly member Daniel Volland said.

Also, single-family properties will be prohibited from being used as short-term rentals like Airbnbs and Vrbos, except for in any accessory dwelling units on those properties, according to the terms of the land disposal. (The restriction was initially proposed to apply to the development's first phase, but members on Tuesday expanded that restriction to all three phases of Holtan Hills.)

On Tuesday night, members added a similar restriction for multi-family properties in Holtan Hills, limiting the number of short-term rentals to 50%.

Yoshimura has said the project will include a homeowners association that would require a minimum lease of 30 days for rented single-family homes, townhouses and duplexes.

In February the Anchorage Assembly will consider legislation that would require licensing and create a registry of short-term rentals in the municipality.

Still, opponents in Girdwood say that the additional terms will likely do little to keep the housing from being purchased as second homes and vacation properties, rather than for year-round residential use.

Assembly member Zach Johnson, who represents South Anchorage and Girdwood, and member Karen Bronga pushed to delay the vote until February, saying that it's clear many Girdwood residents feel that the city's process has left them behind.

"The question remains, in my mind — does this proposal as it stands today do enough to achieve that shared goal of creating more housing for the community? Will, the current conditions on the development be adequate to ensure a high ratio of primary residences?" Johnson said.

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"Ms. Yoshimura's project is going to be a fabulous, fabulous addition with housing for families. But let's do it with Girdwood on board with us," Bronga said.

But their move to postpone failed to gain traction with other members.

"If we continually push and wait and wait, and let 'perfect' become the enemy of 'good and still beneficial' —we'll never do anything. The perfect deal doesn't exist," Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel said before the vote, urging members to pass the measure.

This deal will give Girdwood in two fully developed lots for it to build housing on, and is "a substantial improvement" from the deal as originally proposed, she said.

"And so I don't want to wait for that to happen," Zaletel said. "If we say that there's housing urgency today, why do we wait to tomorrow?"

Members Johnson, Bronga and Kameron Perez-Verdia voted against the land disposal.