Hydrologist briefs Chugiak council on stream setbacks

Wednesday, October 17, 2018 - 16:02
  • Municipality of Anchorage watershed hydrologist Jeff Urbanus gives a presenation on proposed changes to municipal stream setbacks during a meeting of the Chugiak Community Council on Thursday, Sept. 20 at the Elsie Oberg Center in Chugiak. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)
  • Peters Creek runs high through Chugiak on Aug. 31, 2017. (Star file photo by Kirsten Swann)

Don’t fear the setbacks.

It’s a little more complicated than that, but Municipality of Anchorage watershed hydrologist (and Peters Creek resident) Jeff Urbanus told the Chugiak Community Council be believes the ongoing effort to increase stream setbacks and clarify municipal wetland code is being done for the right reasons.

“The biggest reason is there is benefit to the community,” Urbanus told the council during a presentation at its Sept. 20 meeting at the Elsie Oberg Center in Chugiak.

Urbanus began his remarks by giving a brief history of stream setbacks in the municipality. The issue was supposed to be addressed during a rewrite of the municipal land use code in 2015.

Urbanus said stream setbacks in other parts of the state are usually 50 feet.

“We’re on the lower end,” he said.

But some of the provisions proved contentious and the issue was essentially put on the back burner by the Anchorage Assembly.

“They kinda punted,” he said.

But that didn’t mean the need to bring stream setbacks — areas alongside flowing bodies of water that place special conditions on land use and limit new construction — in line with other communities went away. So the code has been rewritten, with the biggest change an increase in the setback from 25 to 50 feet on most streams. However, Urbanus said that doesn’t mean people won’t be able to use their land as they have for years.

“Any existing uses are grandfathered in,” he said.

If someone is currently using land within the new setbacks for a specific purpose — say, they’ve got a fence within the zone — nothing will change.

“It all stays the same as long as it has a continued use,” he said.

The ordinance being considered by the municipality is specifically tailored to individual streams. Urbanus said most small, unnamed streams won’t see any changes at all, while smaller creeks would see a so-called “25 plus 25” setbacks. Snly the largest streams — such as the Eklutna and Eagle River — would be increased to “25 plus 75” or 100-foot setbacks.

“We really didn’t like the idea of a one-size-fits-all buffer,” he said.

Under the ordinance, most named creeks — places like Peters Creek, South Fork Eagle River or Little Peters Creek — with the new 50-foot setbacks would have a 25-foot “streamside zone” where no building or disturbance could take place other than minor work such as authorized bank enhancement, utility maintenance, flood control, hydro power, small trails, fishing platforms, water quality monitoring or emergencies. These areas would also include an additional 25-foot “riparian edge zone” in which use would be limited to such things as lawns, landscaping, golf courses, decks, wells and other small “accessory structures.”

During public discussions of the issue, some tweaks were added, such as a provision to allow for someone to rebuild on the same footprint if their home suffered a disaster such as a fire even if it was inside the setback zone.

Urbanus said stream setbacks are beneficial in a number of ways because they decrease flood risk, improve water quality, make it easier for municipal staff to comply with environmental laws and help control erosion.

“Generally speaking, the bigger the buffer, the bigger the benefit you’re enjoying,” he said.

Urbanus said anyone with concerns about the proposed ordinance has until the Oct. 9 assembly meeting to comment. The Anchorage Assembly opened public comment on the issue in August, but the comment period was left open to give people more time to weigh in with specific concerns.

For more information, visit muni.org.

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