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New documents reveal coordinated effort to eliminate Campbell Lake public access

Since September 2019, the Alaska Landmine has published articles revealing that the State of Alaska considers “private” Campbell Lake to be a public navigable waterway and that millions of dollars of taxpayer money have been spent damming, dredging, and engineering public utilities around the lake, even as members of the public have faced persistent harassment after venturing onto the lake.

In our initial story, the Landmine published documentation of now-Senator Natasha von Imhof (R-Anchorage) and husband Rudi’s attempts to use a formal process called “vacation” to eliminate a little-known public access easement leading to the lake. Now, the Landmine has obtained the von Imhofs’ easement vacation request, along with documents supporting the vacation from neighbors, the Campbell Lake HOA, and the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA). These documents contain questionable claims about the easement and demonstrate a persistent, coordinated effort to assert that public access to the largest lake in Anchorage would be counter to the public interest.

Von Imhofs apply for elimination of public easement

Between 2002 and 2006, now-Senator Natasha von Imhof, husband Rudi von Imhof and their agents petitioned to eliminate the public easement crossing “Von Imhof Acres,” a 2.25-acre then-undeveloped property on the southwestern shore of Campbell Lake. This easement connected West 100th Avenue to Campbell Lake, and represented the last remaining option for public access to the lake.

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ASEA

On June 15, 2004, DOWL Engineering Director of Planning Timothy C. Potter submitted a letter to the MOA on behalf of their clients, the von Imhofs, requesting the easement vacation. The letter notes that the easement predates the creation of Campbell Lake itself, but claims that the easement “no longer serves or could possibly serve the purpose for which the easement was originally intended, that being public roadway and utilities.” According to DOWL Engineering, the easement does not provide useful access to Campbell Lake because after crossing the von Imhof property it traverses the property of their neighbor, who has improved the public easement with private amenities, including “a dock, a boathouse, an aircraft parking slip, deck, and landscaping.”

DOWL Engineering description of Frost improvements to public easement

DOWL Engineering summarizes the case for vacating the easement as follows:

  • Existing topography is too steep;
  • Utilities and roads will not be extended north across the lake or to the south from this location;
  • The lake is closed to sport fishing so any one attempting to access via this easement for fishing could not fish legally;
  • Floatplane base and flight safety is not compatible with casual access to the lake by swimmers and boaters unfamiliar with operational safety guidelines and near shore operations, and;
  • Protection of trail access will result in a variety of parking, access, circulation and security/safety related problems, on the adjacent private property and public roadway.

Questionable claims about Campbell Lake easement

According to DOWL Engineering, “the entire lakeshore and lake bottom of Campbell Lake is private property. The lake is privately operated by the Campbell Lake Homeowners Association with written rules…” However, as the Landmine reported on September 20, 2019, the State of Alaska recognizes Campbell Lake as a navigable waterway, which members of the public have a constitutional right to access and utilize. The Alaska Landmine could not find precedent in Alaska for an HOA’s rules superceding the Alaska State Constitution.

DOWL repeatedly claims that the topography of the easement is too challenging to permit the development of a public access point:

DOWL Engineering claims about Campbell Lake easement topography

DOWL Engineering claims that “design and construction of any type of access within the easement on Tract B1 would be extremely difficult…” However, satellite imagery demonstrates that neither the vom Imhofs nor their neighbor, Dr. John D. Frost, found the topography especially challenging. Both the von Imhofs and Dr. Frost were able to build driveways, float plane docks, and residences on and immediately adjacent to the easement:

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URSA Optical

Developmet adjacent to the 'extremely difficult' Campbell Lake easement

According to DOWL Engineering, the fact that Campbell Lake is closed to sportfishing constitutes an argument for the elimination of the public easement to the lake. It is unclear why DOWL Engineering assumes that easement users would want to fish illegally on Campbell Lake, or why other user groups should not be considered.

DOWL Engineering claims that public safety would be “severely impacted” by public use of the lake because of the lake’s status as a designated float plane base. However, as the Landmine has previously reported, Campbell Lake HOA members apparently believe themselves to be fully capable of safe boating on Campbell Lake. Satellite imagery shows that Campbell Lake residents own and operate hundreds of recreational watercraft on the lake. Float plane traffic and personal watercraft coexist on countless Alaska lakes.

Last, DOWL Engineering claims that the section line easement crossing the von Imhof property is intended for “public roadways and utilities.” Research by the Landmine indicates that this view demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of section line easements. Section line easements are dedicated not specifically to “public roadways and utilities” but generally to public access and public access infrastructure–including trails.

Despite their questionable nature, the statements made by DOWL Engineering on behalf of the von Imhofs would be repeated almost verbatim in letters of support for the vacation, both by individuals and by representatives of the Municipality of Anchorage (MOA).

Letters of support for easement vacation

On April 8, 2004, Campbell Lake resident and von Imhof neighbor Dr. John D. Frost wrote a letter of support for the easement vacation to MOA Platting Officer Jerry Weaver. Those who read the Landmine’s initial reporting on Campbell Lake may recall that after we attempted to interview him, Dr. Frost circulated surveillance images of us to the HOA describing us as “suspcious men.” The second half of the public easement leading to Campbell Lake crosses the northwestern corner of Frost’s property, overlapping with his driveway, yard and float plane dock. Dr. Frost begins by stating his unequivocal belief that Campbell Lake is a private lake:

“Campbell Lake is a private lake the entire shoreline and all subsurface land being privately owned. There is not currently, nor will there ever be a need for public access to this lake.”

According to Dr. Frost, creating public access to Campbell Lake would make the MOA liable for injuries, responsible for public safety, and “even more” responsible for pollution. Dr. Frost warns the MOA that if it attempts to develop public access, the “NIMBY” Campbell Lake residents and powerful HOA will burden the Municipality with expensive and protracted lawsuits:

Dr. John Frost warning to the Municpality of Anchorage

Dr. Frost’s letter claims that public access to Campbell Lake would lower property values on lakeside homes, thereby decreasing municipal property tax revenue. Dr. Frost concludes by stating that “based on the above considerations it seems unlikely that public access to Campbell Lake will ever be allowed. I would request that you favorably consider the von Imhof’s request to vacate the easement across their land.”

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Stop Pebble Now

To read the full text of Dr. Frost’s letter to the MOA, click here.

On June 10, 2004, Anchorage resident Mark Edwards submitted a letter to Weaver stating “support for the application of Rudi and Natasha von Imhof to vacate the Section Line easement on their Campbell Lake property.” Edwards notes that the easement was not currently in use, that developing it would have consequences for public safety, and that it would be difficult to develop the easement due to “the slope and grade at this location.”

The Campbell Lake HOA’s “Lake Use Rules” were also submitted to the Municpality in order to bolster the von Imhofs’ request. In the document, the HOA asserts ownership of its “private” lake and the right to dictate access. According to the document, “Access to the lake is limited to members of the Corporation, their immediate families, and invited guests.” Membership is offered exclusively to the owners of property that abuts Campbell Lake.

Municipality of Anchorage agencies support elimination of public easement

Multiple documents show broad Municipal support for the von Imhofs’ easement vacation request, and a widespread belief by Municipal boards and agencies that the public would be harmed by having access to “private” Campbell Lake.

A July 17, 2002 MOA Planning Department analysis states that “Project Management and Engineering, Traffic Engineering, Street Maintenance, and the Planning Department are not opposed to vacation.” The analysis notes that “Campbell Lake is a man made lake and the owners association owns the underlying land of the lake itself. This is a private lake which has been man made with no public access.”

In an August 2004 Planning Department analysis the Department concurred with the von Imhofs’ request, noting that “Existing topography is steep,” that the lake is closed to fishing, and that “Floatplane base and flight safety is not compatible with casual access to the lake.”

Surprisingly, the Planning Department claims that the Municipality’s failure to provide adequate parking near the easement constitutes a justification for eliminating the easement:

MOA statement regarding parking at Campbell Lake easement

According to minutes from an August 4, 2004 meeting of the Municipal Platting Board, board member Bruce Phelps voiced strong support for vacating the easement: “Public access to the lake would not be in the public interest… Vacation of the easement would promote the public health and safety.”

Municipal Platting Board meeting comment regarding von Imhof easement vacation

The Municipal Platting Board voted unanimously to approve the vacation.

In a February 1, 2006 MOA memo, Senior Planner Margaret O’Brien notes that “the topography [on the easement] is steep and utilities and roads will not be extended north across Campbell Lake. Campbell Lake is a man-made lake that is privately owned… Trail access will not be provided.”

Memo from Senior Planner Margaret O'Brien

Even municipal organizations dedicated to public parks and trails registered no objection to the easement vacation, which could effectively end the possibility of public access to the largest lake in Anchorage. According to the July 17, 2002 Planning Department analysis, the Parks and Beautification Division wrote that “No park land or trail system will be adversely affected by this re-plat and vacation; therefore Parks and Recreation has no comment.” The August 4, 2004 Planning Department analysis states that the MOA Parks Coordinator and Trails Coordinator registered no opposition to the vacation.

State of Alaska declines to fully vacate the easement

Several MOA documents note that final authority to vacate the easement rested with the State of Alaska, and not the Municipality. The Alaska State Constitution guarantees public access and use of navigable waterways, and the State is known for its rigorous defense of access to public lands and waters. Moreover, State law dictates that easements of the type crossing the von Imhof property cannot be vacated without providing for equal or better alternate access.

As previously reported by the Landmine, the State agreed to partially vacate the original easement across the von Imhof property, but only on the condition that it be replaced with a 25-foot-wide pedestrian easement following the east side of the lot. The von Imhofs were prohibited from erecting barriers or posting signage that would deter public use of the easement. The von Imhofs agreed and built a lakeside home now assessed at $1.7 million.

For years following the agreement, the easement remained virtually unknown and the belief that Campbell Lake is a “private lake” with no public access went virtually unchallenged.

▲ Rendition of the section line easement crossing the von Imhof and Frost properties. The vacated easement is marked in red; the new 25-foot pedestrian easement is marked in green; the remainder of the original easement is marked in yellow. Image courtesy a Landmine reader and professional surveyor.

Continuing confusion over legality of public access

Following the publication of The bizarre story of Campbell Lake, the private lake that isn’t, numerous licensed surveyors and trailbuilders contacted the Landmine to express their desire to develop the public easement. The Landmine, which does not typically coordinate trailbuilding projects, requested the MOA’s official position on easement development.

On September 30, 2019, Municipal Surveyor Steven Schmitt responded to the Landmine stating that unauthorized public use or development of the easement would be illegal. According to Schmitt, “The mere existence of an easement does not convey to an individual the right to use said easement; there is a specific process required to do so. A private entity cannot legally enter another person’s property without permission, even if an easement exists.” Schmitt stated that the easement could only be developed by government institutions or after following a lengthy permitting and engineering process via MOA, DNR, and DOT. Schmitt concluded:

Personal property rights are protected by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution – any ‘project’ which would make use of these easements would need to rise to the level where it is in the best interest of the public.

To read the full text of Schmitt’s email, click here.

The Landmine was surprised by the claim that public use of section line and pedestrian easements constituted a violation of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Landmine forwarded Schmitt’s email to Thomas Meacham, a longtime Alaska attorney who has been involved in multiple landmark land use cases in Alaska, including Sturgeon. Meacham took the liberty of responding to Schmitt’s response line by line. A portion of Meacham’s email is reproduced below. Schmitt’s original comments are in italics, and Meacham’s replies are in bold italics:

The mere existence of an easement does not convey to an individual the right to use said easement; there is a specific process required to do so. Incorrect. No rights are being “conveyed” to an individual. However, if the easement is for public access, any member of the public may use it for that purpose, without any further “special process” needed. I would like to see the authority for your statement here.

A private entity cannot legally enter another person’s property without permission, even if an easement exists. Quite incorrect. A landowner whose land is burdened by an easement cannot deny the easement holder (here, the public) use of the easement consistent with its purpose. To make such a claim as you have made, would completely negate the legal purpose of an easement. I would like to see the authority for your statement here.

To see the full text of Meacham’s response to Schmitt, click here. The Landmine highly recommends the read.

On October 2, 2019, Assistant Municipal Attorney Quincy Arms responded to Meacham that the views expressed by Schmitt should not be considered the Municipality’s official position.

Municipality and State promise joint statement regarding public use of Campbell Lake

Since late September, the Landmine has pressed both the Municipality of Anchorage and the State of Alaska for official positions regarding public access to and use of Campbell Lake. On October 25, 2019, MOA attorney Rebecca Windt Pearson responded to the Landmine:

Thanks for your patience. Because both navigable waterways and section line easements are a state issue, we are working closely with DNR on issuing a complete joint explanation of our shared position on the ownership/access questions you raise. We will send it to you as soon as it is available. In the meantime, I can tell you that (1) APD has not received or responded to any reports of trespass on Campbell Lake; and (2) the roads surrounding the lake itself are public.

Multiple sources have told the Landmine that both the Municipality and State have received numerous inquires regarding Campbell Lake public access. Sources tell the Landmine that there has been an intense effort behind the scenes by the Campbell Lake HOA and its agents to permanently block the development of public access to the lake.

This is a developing story.

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Shazbot

Good stuff. 50 points to Landfield House.

Parks and Rec sabotaged a Northeast Community Council challenge grant to develop the easement granted for public access between Cheney Lake and Chester Creek and has essentially been a pawn of those more affluent for as long as John Rodda was Director, no matter the Mayor at the time. When DNR killed a trail grant that was written by Anchorage Park Foundation for Parks and Rec, Forrest was suggesting that a single individual was able to control DNR, as opposed to acknowledging that between P&R and APF the grant was such a shambles that DNR simply could not see any… Read more »

Robert Saget

This is maddening if you really consider what went on here: 1. Von Imhof (who is supposedly a public servant) acted directly against the public interest to vacate the easement so that she could build her personal $1.7 million estate and prevent the public from accessing the lake. 2. Von Imhof hired a contractor to say that the easement was “too steep” to build a road, but somehow not too steep to then build her mansion and a driveway to it across quite literally the same piece of land. (LOL) 3. Dr. Frost actually called public access a “nuisance” in… Read more »

D K

Pray tell me, how in the he** did both Von Imhof, & Dr. Frost get building permits to build on a easement?

Pandora

The vacated section line came first and then they built on their lots. The only easement left is a pedestrian easement. The property under the easement is the private property of the landowners. Pedestrians are on private property even when they traverse on the easement. Pedestrians must respect private property and cannot touch a berry, a flower, a branch or a blade of grass. All of those remain the property of the landowner.

Robert Saget

In the case of Von Imhof, the section line easement was vacated prior to construction of the property. While an act of bad faith and a violation of public trust (especially given that she effectively paid an engineering firm to lie to remove public access), it was not strictly illegal. In the case of Frost, permitting would have been required prior to building his float plane dock. Given the “above the law” attitude of the Campbell Lake homeowners, it is possible that construction proceeded without the legally required permitting. The portion of the easement crossing Frost’s property was never vacated.… Read more »

Pandora

People must remain at all times within the pedestrian easement or section line easement. They would be trespassing if they at any time diverge from the easement. The property owners are free to plant a garden, shrubs, berries, sod, flowers or otherwise enjoy their private property including their private property that has an easement on it. A pedestrian easement means exactly that. No motorized access. No picking from the private property owners berries, flowers, etc. When you traverse on an easement you are still on the private property of the person who holds the deed or title to the land.

Robert Saget

The public wants access to the largest lake in Anchorage, not Dr. Frost’s raspberries.

VILenin

I don’t know about you, but this part of the public doesn’t want lake access nearly as much as he wants to annoy a bunch of entitled folks. If these whiney takers weren’t so adamant about their government entitlements, I’d make use of the many better opportunities for outdoor recreation in Anchorage. Alas, my riff raff buddies and I will be compelled to trample across Von Imhoff’s shrubbery and Frost’s driveway and lawn for some pond hockey if and when things freeze up.

Pandora

The public is entitled to pedestrian access. They cannot be blocked in anyway to pedestrian access. The public is not allowed to motor vehicle or other forms of access. The easements cannot be developed or transformed in any way.

VILenin

The owner of real property burdened by an easement is free to use that property to the extent the use does not unreasonably interfere with enjoyment of the easement, which is the dominant estate.

The public is entitled to make reasonable use the easement. If a person places a flower garden across a public easement, the public can walk across that garden. Your contentions to the contrary are wrong. This is black letter law. It’s undisputed.

My advice: If you don’t want people walking across your property, don’t buy property burdened by a section line easement.

Pandora

“DNR’s regulations don’t apply to the landowner’s use of his land (including the land subject to the easement), but only to public use of public easements. 11 AAC 51.100(e) has been rewritten to clarify this. Landowners are free to use their property in any lawful way that doesn’t block use of the easement. A landowner can log all the timber within the easement, graze his cattle there, use it for his leach field, cut hay off it, pick berries on it, place his own driveway and utility lines on it, or landscape it, for example.”

VILenin

11 AAC 51.100(e) does not support your argument and does not appear to be relevant to the present discussion except to throw out a citation to give the appearance of authority. Contrary to your argument, DNR, and MOA ordinances (e.g., ACO Chapter 24.90) when applicable, do regulate obstructions of public right-of-ways, including obstructions created the the owner of the servient estate. But I’m pleased you acknowledge that a landowner is not permitted to obstruct the public’s use and enjoyment of a public easement and appear to be walking back your absurd assertion that “Pedestrians must respect private property and cannot… Read more »

Pandora

I never asserted that an easement can be blocked. To the contrary, I asserted that a pedestrian cannot be blocked from the easement. I do assert that the easement is still the property of the person holding the title or deed. It is and always will be the property of the private property landowner. The article refers to the many people in the public arena who want to develop the easement. That cannot be done. An easement is only a right to traverse. It is not a right to develop anything on someone else’s property.

VILenin

Incorrect. An easement is the right to use the easement for the purpose it was intended for. For a section line easement, that includes constructing highways.

The general public may not have authority to, say, put a paved road on a section line easement, but the state, and a municipality through delegation, may do so. The MOA can put a 30′ wide strip of asphalt right across Lot 37 and it would not constitute a taking requiring just compensation.

Pandora

In order to get to this section line easement that remains since it has already been vacated on one lot and replaced by a pedestrian easement, one would be required to park their car somewhere on the road and walk hundreds of feet before taking a deep dive. The possibility of the MOA approving a 30′ wide strip of asphalt with no possibility of ingress or egress is funny. Lots of luck with the never ending bureaucracy of permitting, design, architecture, future maintenance, surveying, platting, engineering, planning, etc.

Kurt Riemann

Best bullshit line from the letter – “I hope that the Municipality as a whole does not follow the legal and policy mis-directions provided in that letter, to the detriment of the public.”

…the detriment of the public…

I’d like to take a moment to thank the multimillionaires who protect me from detriment by keeping me from getting near the houses they built on my land.

Pandora

Both a pedestrian easement and a section line easement are a means of traversing through the private property of the owner. It will always remain the property of the person who holds the deed. It was never and never will be your land.

Forget pursuing the mandates set forth in the Alaska Constitution and protecting the right of public access. This looks like a case that our Attorney General would be interested in pursuing for the only reason that motivates Mike Dunleavy – revenge. Senator Von Imhoff thwarted Dunleavy’s PFD promise and refused to attend the Governor’s Special Session in Wasilla. This is one Clarkson might finally win regardless of the motives.

Yourmom

Lame lame lame. This site is a joke and full of whining self entitled little bitches. Your articles prove it. Go home snowflakes. Fucking cry babies. Give an inch and a mile is taken in this day and age. Plenty of other lakes with SAFE and EASY access. Use Campbell lake by all means, just follow the rules and dont cross private property.

Bill

I’m going to make a special trip to your lake just to piss you off. =)

Pandora

You’re not in San Francisco.

Jack Ryan

Talk about whining……. You take the cake at this point.

Anna

You live on the lake? Lol. The point is *the rules were subverted for the benefit of a handful of rich people.*

Cheeto Cat

You realize it’s the Campbell Lake H.O.A. who “took a mile” here, right? Anchorage families have been harassed for decades for daring to going onto that 100% PUBLIC lake. Entire generations of kids living a block or two away have been deprived of their right to enjoy their neighborhood lake because of the greedy and gross Campbell Lake H.O.A.

Mark Tenstein

I wonder how Senator von Imhof’s constituents feel about their elected representative trying to take away public access to their lake. This will impact her next run for Senate, let alone a rumored bid for Governor.

Anna

I just moved to her district and she will never, ever get my vote!

smallpotato

How about lease the easement to the HOA? Once leased the HOA can continue to restrict access like they have for years. $20 million for a 20year lease? On the other hand, if the MOA/State does vacate the easement and the lake becomes truly private the property values around the lake should increase. OR May be keep access restricted only if the HOA hosts public lake parties a couple times a summer.

Anna

Thank you, thank you, thank you. The Anchorage community should have access to the lake. This seems like a classic case in Alaska where laws are ignored or misinterpreted because the people in charge just do not care enough to do their due diligence.

Ann Rittal

This is so fascinating as I live on Sand Lake. We have floatplanes and public users coexisting here. We have several public access points. We personally tried to vacate a public access twice and were turned down by the Platting Board twice as it would hinder public access to the lake even though there were six other access points, one just four blocks away! I guess we just didn’t have the name, political pull, or lawyers to pull the wool over the eyes of the MOA.

Alice

Thanks for mentioning Sand Lake. I appreciated the post someone made earlier this year on NextDoor about the rules of the lake and safe use. I think that Sand Lake is a model for how use of Campbell Lake should be managed. The public (everyone, including the people who live on the lake) needs to know how to use the lake safely both for planes and other uses, so perhaps the HOA should post that somewhere. Campbell Lake has historically been used by large, slow-moving craft in the past without issue; a certain retired high school band teacher used to… Read more »

Tom Tomasi

If they get to close this easement on Campbell lake then everyone that has property on lakes streams and rivers will do the same and that Bull shit I should be allowed to go on to a easement to access a lake or stream or river for pleasure just like the home owners due as long as I do not trespass on private property or damage private property and stay on the easement I am breaking no laws I will be the first to file a lawsuit against this

John sparaga, Manager Campbell Lake Seaplane Base,

This article is a series of lies and errors , promoted by jeff landsfield in revenge retaliation for his losing the last senate election to Natasha von imhoff. NO state or MOA money have ever been expended on that lake for the benefit of the CLO Corporation (NOT association). The lake, its water and the land under it which are two lots owned by CLO Inc. was deemed private , having been built solely to support aircraft traffic. It was deemed so in 1969 by the anchorage borough attorney, clarifying that the lake corporation has the right to control who… Read more »

Future Campbell Lake Boater

Let me get this straight, you claim you manage the seaplane base and say boaters can’t be on the lake due to safety. Except for your rich friends, who also happen to live on the lake. THEY can take out their jet skis and kayaks and float the lake all they want, right? Sorry John but that is the most entitled bullshit I’ve read all week. You guys really don’t get why everyone is so pissed off right now, do you?

Frank Rast

The State always owned the Campbell Creek drainage up to the average high water mark. This has been established by the Supreme Court in the Sturgeon case on the Yukon River as Campbell Creek was and still is navigable water under the lake. Campbell Lake is over 50 acres so by State law it is a public lake, which is why MOA was not able to vacate the easement. I distinctly recall the HOA whining about the State dam that was failing, apparently after millions in State money was spent to fix, the dam has now reverted to private ownership?… Read more »

VILenin

There’s public access to the lake. Your opinions that the easement should be vacated has exactly as much relevance as my opinion that the lake should be vacated. In any case, I look forward to using the easement and the lake this winter – if we ever have winter – as anyone can “use the site.” As owner of Lot 13, Block 1 Campbell Lake Heights, you’re presumably a member of CLO, Inc. Tell me, how much has the corporation paid in property tax for ownership of the lake bed? The MOA has not adopted the airport exemption authorized by… Read more »

Donna Mae

Hello John, hope to see you in January 2020 for the first ever CAMPBELL LAKE RIFF RAFF GATHERING. Sorry your all wound up and defensive. Is it because you manage the corporation that pays property taxes to the muni and possibly payment has been lacking? It’s okay, there are abandoned properties all over the muni AND it does seem like you guys will work sternly to keep out the homeless and addicted. Thanks for being a good neighbor about that! See you in January! And put a candle in your window so we know it is your house (presumably the… Read more »