2016: The year in Chugiak-Eagle River news
Alaska legislators grappled with a serious budget crunch in 2016 as state revenues from oil and gas production continued to decline.
In a series of meetings before the session began, local politicians sought input from the Chugiak-Eagle River community. During one such meeting, Sen. Anna MacKinnon of Eagle River said budget cuts were going to be a priority.
“You have my word as policy maker, that the first place we are going to go is a right size budget,” MacKinnon said during a January meeting.
Legislators struggled for months to solve the $4 billion budget gap, eventually averting a government shutdown with the passage of an operating budget on May 31.
After the session, Gov. Bill Walker announced a plan to use part of the Permanent Fund dividend to pay for state spending, roughly halving the expected $2,000 dividends that would have been paid to Alaskans. In October, each eligible Alaskan received a dividend of $1,022.
Pot shops keep their distance
The Anchorage Assembly took steps to limit commercial marijuana in Eagle River by installing a 1,000-foot buffer zone for the businesses in February. The buffer zones ensure commercial marijuana may not be sold within 1,000 feet of protected areas such as schools, day care centers, churches, homeless shelters, jails or halfway houses, playgrounds or recreation centers. That’s twice as far as the setback for businesses in Anchorage proper.
The rules – which were championed by local assembly members Bill Starr and Amy Demboski – will effectively ban such businesses from Eagle River’s downtown corridor. As of the end of the year, two marijuana retail stores had opened in Anchorage but none in Chugiak-Eagle River. According to a March 31 story in the Star, no licenses had been proposed for the area.
Area not immune to murder surge
Anchorage saw a record 34 homicides through Dec. 29 2016, including one in Eagle River.
In the early morning hours of March 11, Anchorage police responding to an anonymous tip found the body of Marcus Dushun Cosby Jr., 24, in a parking lot outside the Wood River Apartments. A local resident told the Star he’d heard gunshots sometime around midnight.
As of year’s end, police had yet to make an arrest in the case.
Crime was a big topic in 2016, with several community meetings held throughout the year to discuss how to deal with a perceived increase of violent crime in the Anchorage area.
Demboski wins another term
Assemblywoman Amy Demboski won her second term on the Anchorage Assembly in April when she finished with 58 percent of the vote. Demboski claimed 3,857 votes to easily outdistance challenger Nick Begich, who got 2,748 votes. Also in the municipal election, a school bond package failed, while capital, recreation, road, police and fire bonds passed. The voters also approved a 5 percent sales tax on marijuana.
Car wash crumbles
An Eagle River landmark was razed in April when the Duck Pond Car Wash was demolished.
The demolition of the iconic car wash alongside the Old Glenn Highway resulted in the opening of a “time capsule” that had been placed inside the large white swan that had adorned the building since 1991. According to car wash owner Brad Gamble, the swan contained a Ziploc bag containing some children’s poems, a red-and-black patch formerly worn by the car wash’s past owner, Larry Thomas, and some old newspapers. The car wash had been closed for five years, and the Gambles said they planned to sell the property.
Plane crashes claim 5 victims
A pair of local pilots were among four people who died April 20 when a Cessna 172 crashed shortly after takeoff from the Birchwood Airport.
Killed in the crash were pilot George Kobelnyk, 64, co-pilot Christian Bohrer, 20, and passengers Sarah Glaves, 36, and Kyle Braun, 27. Kobelnyk and Bohrer were both from the Chugiak-Eagle River area.
In a profile of the two written for the April 28 edition, the men were described as well-known members of the local aviation community.
“George was like an aviation father to Christian,” Bohrer’s father, Mark, told the Star.
In April, the National Transportation Safety Board announced the plane struck a bald eagle after takeoff.
The crash was one of two fatal accidents near the airport in 2016. On Aug. 13, Anchorage pilot Christopher Lampshire, 43, died when his Champion Citabria appeared to lose power before crashing near Birchwood Spur Road shortly after takeoff.
Bear Paw means fun in the sun
Sunny skies greeted fans that turned out for a fittingly tropical-themed Bear Paw Festival in July.
The theme of the 2016 event was “Bear Paw in Paradise,” which turned out to be good luck as organizers were greeted with sunshine for the 31st annual parade through downtown Eagle River. In addition to the parade, the 2016 event featured all the usual events, including the Bear Paw Pageant, the Slippery Salmon Olympics and plenty of food, games and fun in downtown Eagle River.
Eagle River man’s son slain in Dallas attack
William Ahrens of Eagle River lost his son during a shooting in Dallas, Texas in July. Ahrens’s son, Dallas Police Department Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, 48, was among five officers gunned down while monitoring a Black Lives Matter protest on July 7. Micah Johnson, 25, was killed by police explosives shortly after the shooting, which left 11 people injured.
Reinbold, Trump win big
District 14 Rep. Lora Reinbold earned a trip back to Juneau in November after easily beating challenger Joe Hackenmuller in the general election. Reinbold, a Republican from Eagle River, picked up 4,730 votes to Hackenmuller’s 3,320. Eagle River Repoublican Dan Saddler also won re-election to the Alaska State House, although he wasn’t challenged in the general election.
Also winning in November was Republican Donald Trump, who defeated Hillary Clinton to win the U.S. Presidency. Trump won Alaska handily, picking up more than 51 percent of the state’s vote to Clinton’s 36.6 percent. Trump’s margins were particularly strong in Chugiak-Eagle River precincts, where he earned more than 70 percent of the vote.
New housing development opposed
Plans to add dense housing to a neighborhood near Fred Meyer in Eagle River drew strong opposition during planning meetings in December.
The Chugiak Community Council held a special meeting Dec. 1 to discuss a proposal by the Heritage Land Bank to revise the municipal land use plan approved in 2010. The HLB’s original plan sought to increase the number of units allowed on a 92-acre parcel in the Carol Creek subdivision by nearly 500 units. After a discussion, the land bank proposed allowing 359 units on the parcel. However, the community council voted unanimously to oppose the plan. The HLB advisory board later voted to approve the plan, which will next go before the Municipal Planning and Zoning Commission.
Despite plea, family members seek justice for slain daughter
The family of Linda Anne Martz Bower – who was 19 when she died in 2014 – spoke out in December after their daughter’s killer pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in an Anchorage courtroom. Thanks to a plea deal, David Joseph Thomas, 30, will be sentenced to 75 years in prison with 25 suspended in 2017. However, his family said the sentence is too light and is asking the public to send letters to the judge in the case asking that Thomas get a lengthier sentence for the killing.
Two new weekly newspapers appeared in Chugiak-Eagle River in 2016. The first, the Eagle River, Chugiak Herald Observer (or ECHO News) made its debut in September. The second, the Eagle River-Chugiak Eagle, began showing up at local homes in December. ECHO News editor-in-chief John “LJ” Kennedy told the Star he hopes to fill a niche in local news reporting with the paper, which is distributed widely around the area. The papers joined the Chugiak-Eagle River Star (founded in 1971) and daily Alaska Dispatch News to give the area’s 30,000 residents four local newspapers to choose from.