Perhaps the strangest thing about the “controversial” Holtan Hills development in Girdwood, which has now been the subject of months of furious opposition spearheaded by a group of Girdwood property owners, is how utterly ordinary the project really is. At its heart, plans simply call for taking a 60-acre area of municipal land long slated for development and working with a developer to divide it into lots, run utilities to the lots, and then sell the lots to local builders to build mixed-density housing. This basic process has occurred countless times in Anchorage and has resulted in nearly all the housing we live in today.
In fact, this is effectively the same process that once created the properties now owned by many members of the “Halt Holtan Hills” campaign, which seeks to shut down the land disposal required for the project to proceed.
Everyone recognizes that Anchorage in general–and Girdwood in particular–desperately needs housing. Yet members of Halt Holtan Hills have spent a tremendous amount of money, time, and energy fighting the project. They have printed signs, organized protests at Assembly meetings, spread offensive conspiracy theories about the developer, and engaged in a sprawling misinformation campaign targeting Anchorage community councils. They even enlisted the help of the Federation of Community Councils manager, who was forced to resign after the Landmine revealed that he had acted as an advisor for–and received non-monetary compensation from–the group.
Since the land disposal required for the the development has once again come before the Anchorage Assembly, misinformation about the project has continued to proliferate.
Turnagain News, which is operated by several core members of Halt Holtan Hills, could not even make it through the first sentence of its Dec 20, 2023 article about the reintroduction of the land disposal without misinforming its readers, falsely describing the project as “a plan to sell 60 acres of public land… for $2.1 million.” This claim was repeated in a January 10 article.
Contrary to these claims, the development agreement stipulates a profit share between the developer and the municipality and does not call for selling land at all.
What, exactly, is going on here? What could possibly justify this level of rancor and dirty politicking?
It is impossible to know what motivates any one individual, but it is notable that the Halt Holtan Hills campaign is run almost entirely by a core group of extremely well-off Girdwood property owners who own millions of dollars of Anchorage real estate, including a number of the short-term rentals that have contributed to Girdwood’s constricted long-term rental market.
In our April special feature, the Landmine reported that Halt Holtan Hills group leaders Jennifer Wingard and Grace Pleasants both own multiple housing units in the Municipality, including million-dollar-plus single family residences in Girdwood and, in the case of Wingard, a second home in Fairview. David Nyman, who figured prominently in the misinformation campaign targeting Anchorage community councils and who complained that Holtan Hills properties would be used as short-term rentals, was listed as the owner of a house in Anchorage’s well-to-do Turnagain neighborhood, a Girdwood duplex, a vacant lot in Girdwood, and a luxurious short-term rental in Girdwood advertised at $540/night (Nyman is also the chair of Turnagain News).
But these examples pale in comparison to that of Girdwood resident Lynne Doran, who has long been one of the leading campaigners for the Halt Holtan Hills movement. In posts in a private Girdwood Facebook group, Doran has organized a Halt Holtan Hills potluck, solicited orders of Halt Holtan Hills signs, and encouraged Girdwood residents to call Assembly members to oppose the project.
In one post, Doran falsely claimed that Phase 1 of the development was 60 acres; the actual number is approximately 16 acres.
On January 9, Doran testified against the land disposal once again before the Anchorage Assembly, stating that she wanted deed restrictions placed on some Holtan Hills properties to prevent Girdwood from becoming “the land of the second-home-owners and vacation rentals.”
“To build short-term rentals,” she said emphatically, “does not solve housing problems.”
In a twist of irony that would be surprising to exactly nobody who follows Girdwood housing politics, real estate records show that Doran owns at least seven Girdwood properties collectively worth many millions of dollars, including vacant land and multiple short-term rentals advertised on AirBNB. Doran’s “Glacier Cabin,” for example, offers a fully furnished interior, high-speed wi-fi, and other amenities at a minimum charge of $456 for two nights.
Several days ago, an individual claiming to be a snowboard instructor and substitute teacher in Girdwood posted in a private Girdwood Facebook group that she was homeless and living in her vehicle, and said that she was in search of more stable housing.
Doran replied in the comments, but rather than offer assistance with housing she used the plea as an opportunity to enlist opposition to the Holtan Hills land disposal, which is set for discussion at the Anchorage Assembly on January 23.
Nothing so perfectly captures the hypocrisy and cynicism of Halt Holtan Hills like the spectacle of a multimillionaire short-term rental owner coopting a request for housing from a homeless individual into an attempt to help shut down new housing. This is particularly galling in light of the fact that the Assembly ordinance authorizing Holtan Hills stipulates that at least one lot be used for the construction of a minimum of eight affordable housing units. This would constitute the first viable attempt to add affordable housing to Girdwood in many years.
As one frustrated multi-year Girdwood resident (who declined to be named due to concerns about retaliation) told the Landmine, “The lifties and restaurant workers, they think [the Halt Holtan Hills group] are some kind of saviors, but really they’re using them like pawns.”
Unfortunately, the fight over Holtan Hills is not a one-off, but rather is part of a long pattern in which many existing Girdwood property owners reliably mobilize to harass or shut down nearly every proposed multifamily development, hotel, or new housing proposal made in the community. That new multifamily housing? Unacceptable–the decks would face our own decks. That new lodge? It would create too much traffic. That proposal to turn a muddy patch of flood-vulnerable land into workforce housing? Sorry, that land is sacrosanct: kids play soccer there for a month or two every summer.
For decades, Girdwood’s adopted planning documents have cited housing affordability and development as a critical community need. Yet when it comes to building new housing, Girdwood’s property owners, political bodies, and committees often behave like an alcoholic who effusively promises to stop drinking every day, only to come home drunk every night. Significant attempts to add new housing that “fits the community” have allegedly been just around the corner for decades, yet somehow never arrive. No building site is quite suitable, no project team is ever quite right, no roads are ever quite robust enough for additional traffic.
We love development! …just not this development.
After three decades of inaction, it is painfully obvious that whatever the intentions, “housing in the works” has been functionally indistinguishable from “housing never.”
In the absence of realistic development plans, some Girdwood groups and committees have proposed a series of increasingly bizarre and distressing “solutions” to the community’s housing crisis. In a January 2023 presentation titled “Girdwood Housing Solutions,” a group called the Girdwood Community Land Trust proposed housing community members in canvas yurts, repurposed shipping containers, and a “treehouse village” that would double as a tourism attraction. Because what says “dignified housing” like being ogled by camera-wielding tourists in an Instagram set piece?
Speaking to the Landmine last year, one longtime Girdwood resident playfully derided the treehouse concept as an “Ewok village,” after the treehouse village in the sci-fi fantasy franchise Star Wars. The description seems fitting.
More disturbingly, opponents of Holtan Hills have begun to seize on proposals to create sanctioned camping or a sanctioned RV park by Glacier Creek, framing them as alternatives to Holtan Hills. In the 90s, the idea of living “in a van down by the river” was comic shorthand on SNL for adult life in a state of failure. It is now being pitched by some as a part of Girdwood’s housing strategy.
Enough is enough.
New Girdwood residents deserve a functional housing market and access to normal, dignified housing. There is no acceptable justification for blocking new housing on Heritage Land Bank lands, which are designated for exactly that purpose, while shunting underserved Girdwood residents into unplumbed tents, cold vehicles, and treehouses. Those who have been priced out of Girdwood due to decades of inaction and hostility toward new housing deserve the same opportunity to build lives there that the wealthy members of Halt Holtan Hills once had.
Many members of Halt Holtan Hills seem to believe that their permission is required before Heritage Land Bank lands can be disposed of for development. They should be disabused of this notion. Heritage Land Bank lands belong to everyone in Anchorage equally, and a healthy housing market benefits us all. Blocking housing for arbitrary or self-serving reasons may benefit incumbent property owners in the short term, but in the long term it causes serious harm to the entire community.
Proceeding with Holtan Hills is consistent with the stated mission of the Heritage Land Bank, will provide significant opportunity for both local builders and future property owners, and is in the interest of both the Municipality of Anchorage and the community of Girdwood.
We are in a housing crisis. Forget the “Ewok villages” and “vans down by the river.” It’s time get real, roll up our sleeves, and get to work.
Halting Holtan Hills
Continuing coverage of Girdwood's Holtan Hills development by the Alaska Landmine
Halt Holtan Hills!
Community Voices, December 1, 2022
Approve Holtan Hills!
Community Voices, December 6, 2022
From the Editors: Housing delayed is housing denied; approve the Holtan Hills development
Editorial, February 6, 2023
Anchorage community council manager helped undermine Holtan Hills development
Article, March 5, 2023
Halting Holtan Hills
Special Feature, April 17, 2023
Halting Holtan Hills: What Really Went Down - Episode 289
Landmine Radio podcast, May 24, 2023
To address Girdwood’s housing crisis, approve the Holtan Hills land disposal
Community Voices, January 21, 2024
Forget the “Ewok villages” and “vans down by the river,” it’s time to get serious about building in Girdwood
Editorial, January 23, 2024