Up on Fireweed Avenue, a gravel road about 4 miles out of town off East Hill Road, varied thrushes can be heard singing, a spring call that sounds like old-style telephones. That’s early for this year, but Homer’s wacky weather also has led to the sound of ringing phones — the real kind — at Public Works.
Residents along the middle stretch of Fireweed Avenue have been complaining that the road is a muddy mess — again. It’s an annual complaint that’s been ongoing since 2003.
“Part of the reason it’s come up more aggressively is because of the weather we’ve been having,” said Public Works Director Carey Meyer.
Next week at Monday’s Homer City Council meeting, interim City Manager Marvin Yoder will present a memorandum from Meyer suggesting solutions to problems on Fireweed Avenue and also on Cottonwood Avenue. One option might be for the city to provide equipment and work time to fix the bad sections of road if neighbors will kick in for gravel and other materials. Another option would be to force a local improvement district on landowners whose lots front the problem stretch but don’t have homes there.
Usually, people who live on Fireweed Avenue go through breakup in April or May, when temperatures stay above freezing. When Homer went through a warm spell about a week ago, a 1,000-foot stretch between Forget Me Not Lane and where a downhill curve ends turned to muck. Freezing temperatures offered some relief, but it’s an annual rite of spring that several families endure.
“It’s dangerous,” said Rosana Bergt, one of the neighbors affected. “I would hate for my daughter who just started driving to end up in the ditch because she couldn’t go through the mud.”
Bergt and other neighbors live just beyond the problem curve on Fireweed Avenue. Lots uphill are mostly vacant and owned by people who live in the Lower 48, Anchorage and Wasilla. Of nine lots fronting the curve, only three are locally owned and none of them have homes. None of them are willing to form a local improvement district, or LID, Meyer notes in the memo.
That’s the dilemma: the people who use the road to get to their homes don’t have road frontage near the problem. The people who could vote to form an LID won’t assess themselves for something they don’t yet need. Meyer said to improve the road would cost about $3,000 per 100-feet of frontage, but some lots are longer and would add an assessment of $25,000 to $30,000.
“They are completely unmotivated to be in an LID,” Meyer said.
The city inherited the problem when Homer annexed he upper East Hill Road area and Fireweed Lane. The Kenai Peninsula Borough had previously maintained Fireweed Lane as well as Cottonwood Lane, another problem area.
“In general, if the borough was maintaining them, we promised to take over those responsibilities,” Meyer said.
That means plowing snow, putting down dust control after breakup and grading three or four times a year. When the road turns to mud, the city can’t use heavy equipment on the road until it dries. The city can do improvements for short sections of road 100 feet or less. To fix the road would mean digging out wet spots and putting in better drainage. The city has tried to address some of the drainage problems by clearing ditches and culverts, Meyer said.
“Drainage is critical. We’re not going to put in a shovel full of gravel until we get the drainage fixed,” he said.
Public Works is tasked with maintaining roads, not building them, Meyer said. To rehabilitate or pave roads requires forming an LID.
Bergt said when she and her husband Neil bought their lot and built their home about 10 years ago, they didn’t learn about the break-up issues. The problem became more apparent when heavy trucks started going in as part of construction in the area. To the west of the Bergts are several other newer homes. Bergt said the worst experience on the road happened when her car bottomed out in muck about three years ago.
“I was in tears,” she said. “I was stuck in the mud.”
Bergt called the city, and a worker came up with a truck and got her out.
Fireweed Avenue ends about another 1,000 feet to the west, but it’s possible to drive on a rough road and connect to Whispering Meadows and ultimately to West Hill Road. That section isn’t yet an official right of way. Fireweed Avenue could be an east-west corridor as an alternative to Skyline Drive, and like other east-west corridors in the city’s transportation plan, get state funding, but it’s not on the immediate horizon in city plans.
The option of having neighbors contribute to materials has been discussed with Fireweed Avenue residents, and they’ve said they would be willing to support that approach, Meyer said in his memo. Some of the homes in the area are on large view lots and assessed at $500,000 and up.
“There are a lot more well-to-do people living there than in other areas of Homer,” Meyer said.
The second option would be for the city council to initiate an LID based on public safety issues. At times it’s hard if not impossible for emergency vehicles to get through the muddy section. Bergt noted several people in the area have health issues that make that a pressing concern. Such an LID would be imposed by the council rather than initiated by landowners.
A third option would be to do nothing, but with this year’s erratic on-off breakups, and a final breakup to come in April or May, Fireweed Avenue will experience more severe breakup, Meyer noted in the memo.
Bergt praised the city for trying to work with her and other neighbors.
“I don’t hold any grudges with anyone working with the city,” she said. “I know they’re just trying to do their job. I know they’re frustrated they have limitations.”