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.