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We Build Alaska

Anchorage community council manager helped undermine Holtan Hills development

At a “Community Conversation” event held in Girdwood on February 25, Community Councils Center Manager Mark Butler recapped his efforts to help Girdwood residents kill the proposed Holtan Hills housing development. The talk by Butler, whose salary is paid by a grant from the Anchorage Assembly, was a startling public acknowledgement that he had long acted in his official capacity to undermine a controversial mixed-density development worked on by many members of the Assembly.

Butler stated that he was initially contacted by Girdwood property owner Grace Pleasants, and agreed to come to Girdwood to meet with Holtan Hills opponents on the condition that he receive weekend accommodations in the resort community. The offer was accepted.

Butler said that he advised project opponents that outright rejection of the project would not be effective. “My suggestion,” said Butler, “was if your goal is to stop a project, change the way you talk about it.” Butler stated that he advised opponents to shift their messaging to, “We want development but we want good development, and we would like to define what that development is.”

Butler said that he advised opponents to avoid debating specifics, because they could be outmaneuvered by subject matter experts. Instead, Butler said, he suggested that they speak in general terms and claim to speak on behalf of the community.

According to Pleasants, who spoke at the meeting, Butler helped Holtan Hills opponents craft an outreach strategy that involved lobbying Anchorage community councils to oppose the development. When Pleasants announced that many community councils had passed resolutions opposing Holtan Hills, Butler led a round of applause.

According to Butler, the community council outreach efforts and new messaging were effective. Butler stated that when he spoke with Connie Yoshimura, the would-be developer of the Holtan Hills project, she had noted a recent change in the way Holtan Hills opponents were messaging. “Wow,” said Butler, recalling his thoughts while speaking with Yoshimura, “[Opponents of Holtan Hills] are doing what I think will be successful.”

Butler also waded into the upcoming Anchorage Assembly elections. Speaking about Assembly member Christopher Constant, who has advocated for increased housing throughout Anchorage and has been sharply critical of Holtan Hills detractors, Butler noted that Constant is “up for re-election this time. We get to decide whether to vote for him or not.” At this point, Butler made a thumbs-down gesture to the room.

“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” Butler said.

Individuals acting on behalf of the Federation of Community Councils (FCC) are required to avoid actions that could influence elections, such as endorsing candidates. Section 20 of the 2023 Municipality of Anchorage Grant Agreement with the FCC states, “There shall not be any activity to further the election or defeat of any candidate for public, political, or party office as part of or in connection with this grant, nor shall any of the grant funds be used for such purposes.” The Assembly grant to the FCC totals $90,000.

The planned Holtan Hills development would have turned approximately 60 acres of Heritage Land Bank (HLB) land in Girdwood into single-family and multifamily housing, and would have dedicated land for affordable housing. The development, which supporters hoped would alleviate Girdwood’s extreme housing crisis, was widely opposed by existing Girdwood residents, who have seen the values of their properties and rental units skyrocket in recent years.

The development was effectively stopped on February 7, when the the Anchorage Assembly voted 7-5 to halt the process required to transfer the HLB land to the developer. Assembly members cited opposition to the development from Girdwood residents and a lack of confidence in the Bronson administration.

The full audio recording of the meeting is available below:

Correction: An initial version of the article included an incorrect claim about Butler’s compensation. The number cited pertained to all FCC staffing costs, and not exclusively to Butler’s compensation. That claim has been removed. The Landmine regrets the error.

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Anchorage YIMBY
1 year ago

Girdwood is only a 45 minute drive from the Anchorage bowl, so it makes no sense that Mark needed free accommodations there. Looks like AirBNBs are running around $250/night on average and a room at the resort was like $400/night last time I checked. So Mark asked for/took between $250 and $800 of free services from a bunch of anti-development NIMBYs (depending on how many nights he spent there). Not sure if this would violate any rules but it sure doesn’t look great.

Patrick Wisniewski
1 year ago

That isn’t what he said, he said him and his wife stayed with them over the weekend. Neither of us know what the deal was but it was disclosed even. I would think Connie and other developers routinely give perks to their friends to advance their interest that are worth a lot more. If that’s the case then having friends that share your views and an opinion is now a conflict of interest. Yes it doesn’t look good being that positions funded by a grant but this was a not a government meeting. It would be different if this was… Read more »

Sleepless in Spenard
1 year ago

14:05 “So then Grace called and said Mark, would you be willing to come down here, how much would it cost? And I said well it wouldn’t cost anything, but if you can find me a place to spend the night for Alva(?) and I then she’ll buy into coming down here on a Saturday, and she did, and we were able to stay at their place. So thank you.” Sounds like Woebler’s reporting that Mark came down on the condition that he get weekend lodging was correct. Beyond that you are missing the point that Butler is the head… Read more »

Patrick Wisniewski
1 year ago

I listened to the recording and sounds like a community organizer was taking a victory lap with their group and probably said something people would say at a political fundraiser where they would not expect to be secretly recorded (which in many other states is a felony) vs an official meeting. Sounded like the guy is doing his job if he’s helping regular people that aren’t politically greased like Connie have a voice. Is this worse than Loren Lehman advocating to repeal ranked choice while serving on the election commission? It’s no secret a lot of rules are bent in… Read more »

Patrick Wisniewski
1 year ago
Reply to  Paxson Woelber

Well it doesn’t feel good to be attacked by someone not knowing the full story, does it? At least you had a chance to clarify, it doesn’t sound like you ever reached out to the subjects you wrote about to do the same. I have met Mark before, yes he’s quirky but this was clearly a cheap shot because he has the wrong opinion on this. I have had nothing to do with the HH debate until now, I don’t live in Girdwood so my opinion shouldn’t matter, I disagree with this development but he’s not the reason it got… Read more »

Joe 99654
1 year ago

Well I spend a decade in Girdwood.

Its not because there is a ski area there that land is expensive.

Its the mere lack of land nestled in the valley. If there were 10,000 acres for sale it would be different.

The speculation bubble will bust however when Alyeska fails. Which it might. Hard to do business in a town with no workers because wages are low and housing is taken by speculators and nightly rentals.

1 year ago

I sympathize with the author’s position, but I agree that this sort of reporting is problematic. We actually lose credibility when we have one-sided gotcha narratives that lack follow up, or genuine questioning of the subjects being covered, or bases for comparison.

Sleepless in Spenard
1 year ago

Butler should not be taking “victory laps” and he should not be “bending” rules. Your comment unintentionally shows exactly why this was newsworthy.

Elstun Lauesen
1 year ago

Solid reporting. Thanks!

Curtis Interruptus
1 year ago
Reply to  Elstun Lauesen

I wouldn’t call it reporting. I’d call it a hatchet job. As Wisniewski pointed out, Woelber didn’t speak to Butler, or at least didn’t include any comments from Butler, so the article fails as balanced journalism–the Landmine erroneously calls itself journalism. This is an editorial. Jeff and Paxson don’t like that HH went down (for now) so they’re doing their usual yellow journalism.

Sleepless in Spenard
1 year ago

LOL, this article is made up almost entirely of comments from Butler. As someone who has dabbled in journalism, I will say public events and speeches are often reported on without following up with speakers unless necessary. The public speech IS the comment. I do think that a follow-up here on a few points (such as the thumbs-down gesture) would have made for a more balanced story, however.

Scott Christiansen
1 year ago

If Girdwood needs worker housing it will probably be in South Anchorage.

Girdwood Person
1 year ago

Mad stink eye from that woman in the blue. Former manager of BO Iraq, owner of homes in both Anchorage and Girdwood, pilot and more… and she’ll do anything to make sure the rabble can’t build in Girdwood.

Not Girdwood Person
1 year ago

Grace Pleasants also owns housing in both Girdwood and Anchorage, and her company is based in Tacoma, so her Girdwood property is either her second or third residence. I wonder how many people in that room only own property in Girdwood. My guess is few to none.