Muni ends maintenance on Aurora Borealis Road

Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 12:53
  • Aurora Borealis Road, located off Birchwood Loop Road just north of the Glenn Highway, April 29, 2017. Eagle River Street Maintenance faces an Oct. 1 deadline to obtain a temporary easement along the private drive. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Birchwood resident Gordon Dersch points out his property lines along Aurora Borealis Road on Sept. 22, 2017. The popular local thoroughfare covers multiple private properties before crossing Peters Creek at the Starner Bridge. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Gordon Dersch holds a 1990 survey of his Birchwood property on Sept. 22, 2017. Aurora Borealis Road runs through Dersch’s land and several other private properties in the neighborhood. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

On Oct. 1, the care and keeping of Chugiak’s Aurora Borealis Road will return to the hands of the few residents who live there.

The decision to end municipal maintenance on the petite local side street followed more than a year’s worth of meetings and a Sept. 25 vote by the Chugiak Birchwood Eagle River Rural Road Service Area Board of Supervisors. In the end, road supervisors agreed, it was an issue of risk.

Aurora Borealis – running parallel to the north of Birchwood Loop Road — crosses several parcels of private land before turning into Starner Street and the one-lane Starner Bridge over Peters Creek. Because Aurora Borealis Road is mostly private, municipal road maintenance crews have trespassed for years, said Mark Littlefield of Eagle River Street Maintenance. The municipality sought public use easements to continue maintaining the road, but several proposals failed to gain necessary support from six of 13 local property owners, Littlefield said. This fall, it ran out of time.

“I’ve exhausted my efforts,” Littlefield told road supervisors at their September meeting.

Without legal access to the road, the five supervisors voted unanimously to end maintenance. On Oct. 2, Littlefield said, the municipality would install signs and a turnaround at the end of Starner Bridge. It isn’t the popular choice, he said: Local community councils passed resolutions in support of continued maintenance on the road, and more than half of the 13 local property owners agreed to easements.

“There was a lot of people on that road who would rather have us do it,” Littlefield said. “But it is private property.”

After three different notices by mail and another round of house calls in mid-September, the municipality had yet to hear from five local property owners, Littlefield said. Another refused the deal outright.

Gordon Dersch preferred to keep his land, he said.

“This is all I have,” said Dersch, standing in front of his Birchwood home, surrounded by trees and tranquility one rainy September afternoon.

It was the Friday before the CBERRRSA vote, and Dersch said he’d lost track of the all the letters he’d received from the municipality. When he first moved to the neighborhood in 1992, Aurora Borealis was still a dirt road across his property and his neighbors’.

“No one cared, ‘cause that’s just the way they cut them up back then,” he said.

The municipality paved the road and kept maintaining it, and Dersch said he didn’t mind who used it. But he moved to Birchwood for the seclusion and the natural beauty and the peace and quiet, he said. Aurora Borealis Road runs straight through his front yard, and agreeing to the public use easement would mean ceding a few feet of land to bring the road up to standard. Dersch said he didn’t want to give it up to make way for more traffic.

He’s not worried about losing municipal maintenance, he said. There’s a guy down the street with a snowplow, he said. Chugiak Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department engines can drive the road in all but the most apocalyptic winter conditions, according to assistant chief Clifton Dalton. Plus, Dersch said, he doesn’t even drive anymore.

He has no car, he said — just the few acres of Birchwood land he’s called home for a quarter century. That’s what he hopes to preserve, he said.

“Everyone has the right to protect their property,” Dersch said. “Right?”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com.

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