The most ridiculous thing I’ve heard come out of the Anchorage Assembly chambers was public testimony offered back in 2011. It took place a little over a month after that year’s municipal elections, when voters approved Proposition 11, requiring universal card check at liquor stores. The measure mandated that all box store employees involved in selling alcohol must manually check each consumer’s state identification card before handing over the purchased alcohol. It wasn’t all that controversial. Despite some box stores’ objections, it passed with 67 percent of the vote.
The Assembly was then tasked with turning the will of the voters into legislation. In late May, lawmakers opened a public hearing on their ordinance with that goal. There was sparse opposition; mostly quibbles over the bill’s language and confusion over who the card check applied to. One soft spoken, no doubt well intended gentleman, walked up to the podium to register his complaint. He said that there were already too many regulations placed on restaurant employees (who, coincidentally, were not implicated in the bill).
“I think that for you to impose this restriction on restaurants and bars — I work in a small bar — that it would make [it] very difficult. And you’d have to hire. If you’re busy, you’d have to just be on your toes,” he said. And then: “I go on the old thing, like, when they came for the Indians, I said nothing. When they came for the Natives, I said nothing. When they came for the Jews, I said nothing. And then they came for me and there was no one to speak up for me. That’s how I feel about this.”
About asking for an ID. You know, like the Holocaust.
A similar should-be noncontroversial proposal was back before the Assembly Tuesday night. This one, offered by south Anchorage assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, sought to prohibit palisade fences. The ones with large, gothic-style spikes. The effort began back in April, after the municipality’s Watershed & Natural Resources Advisory Commission recommended the policy change.
A resolution submitted by the commission noted that moose are killed annually when they try to step or jump over such fences.
[The pales or points or points of metal palisade fences can kill moose in at least three different ways: (1) by puncturing the torso and vital organs, leaving the moose impaled on the fence; (2) by puncturing a leg muscle or snagging one or both hind feet between pales, which leaves the moose hanging head down and dying from suffocation or bloat; or (3) by puncturing the abdomen, after which the moose struggles free, to die later from internal bleeding or a systemic infection[.]
The commission reported that the Department of Fish and Game has, at times, been unable to rescue moose hooked on the fences, has little idea how many free themselves only to die later, and says that “these mortalities are cruel, unusual, and unnecessary, given that less deadly types of fences are available[.]” Studies from wildlife biologists Jessy Coltrane and Rick Sinnot said three to four incidents occur annually.
“The mystery is not how the moose die,” Sinnot wrote for the Alaska Dispatch News back in June. “The mystery is why most owners of these fences aren’t doing anything to fix the problem.”
Johnston proposed a policy fix back in July. Her ordinance proposed amending Anchorage’s land use code to prohibit palisade fences under nine feet in height. Property owners with existing palisade fences, under seven feet, would have five years to comply.
Push back was immediate, honing in on three specific view points.
The first was that the government should not be able to tell homeowners what fences they can and cannot have. This perspective was argued most vociferously by Eagle River Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, who told her colleagues: “I think when we get to the point where we’re starting to tell people that not only can you not have this type of fence, but we’re going to force you as a government to incur costs to change your fence, I can’t support it in any fashion.”
The cost is a misnomer. While one homeowner quoted the price of replacing his palisade fence in the neighborhood of $6,000, Tamas Deak — the chair of the Watershed & Natural Resources Commission — pointed out that “you don’t have to replace the fence, you just have to remove the spikes. And you can do it with a reciprocating saw.”
Additionally, one might point out that the entire purpose of land use code is for the municipality to set standards in terms of how large a sign one can display on their property (forbidding billboards, for example), how tall buildings can be in order to prevent issues with aircraft, and how close businesses can set up shop next to streams. Title 21 is about as far from perfect as one can get, but to say it’s not the government’s job to enact regulations making the city more livable — in this sense, literally — is a bit of an overshot.
The second criticism of the ordinance was that palisade fences increase security. Art Davidson, owner of Best Storage in midtown Anchorage, offered testimony to the Assembly explaining why he had chosen the style: “Anyone can go to Home Depot or someplace and get some bolt cutters and quickly cut through chain link. It’s not impossible to get over six, seven foot spiked metal fence, but it’s more difficult.”
More articulately, and indicative of a much more serious problem, was testimony from Anchorage resident and palisade fence owner Heather Wollrich:
Never once did my husband and I ever say we hope to impale a moose. Safety from bears, moose, strangers that wander onto our property just to have a look around, burglars that have tried to break into our home — that’s what I’m trying to protect my family from. I want a safe place for my children to be able to play…. I am a palisade owner… because of the current bout of home invasions. My husband and I personally know three different home owners that have been in this horrific situation here in Anchorage, and this is the best way for me to protect myself and my family.
But Sinnot argues that there is no actual added security. “Despite its medieval semblance, a metal palisade fence isn’t difficult for a person to climb over. Any sense of increased security is a facade.”
The increase in crime and home invasions cited by Wollrich is a concern across the city. But fences aren’t a solution; they’re just a sad reflection of the distrust Anchorage residents have in an administration that’s ignored upticks in crime, choosing to instead combat it with an unprecedented APD staffing crisis.
There is equal merit in placing faith in Batman.
Sinnot said it came down to aesthetics; something conceded by both Wollrich and Davidson as a factor in their decisions to go with palisade fencing. Demboski agreed:
I have neighbors that have these palisade fences. They’re very nice looking. They keep their dog in every time I walk by. Their kids are out playing, but nobody’s going to scale the fence; I mean, they’re kind of intimidating to look at. But the nice thing is they have a nice inlet view so I can see right through the fence. I like these fences.
Tuesday night, she repeated her earlier comments, saying of the bill: “I don’t want to use the word ridiculous, but I think this is a little bit of an overreach. I can’t, um — I like palisade fences. I don’t have one. But someday, if I build another house, maybe I’ll put one up. I think they look very nice.”
Via email Tuesday afternoon, Johnston told me that she didn’t think she had the votes to pass the ordinance. The dialog on Tuesday night lent itself to that pessimism.
“I think barrier fences are challenging in any neighborhood,” Eagle River’s senior assemblyman, Bill Starr, said. “But in the palisade — with the vertical bars made out of metal — sure, decorative stuff on the top might have an impaling effect, but go around, the moose gets impaled, oh well.”
Midtown assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson thought the proposal went “a little too far.” Her colleague, Dick Traini, added his opposition as well: “This is government running amok. I’m sorry. We have no children being hurt with this. We don’t represent the moose.”
Coltrane, who was in attendance, objected.
Not only do I end up having to deal with it when moose are hung up…. It’s usually pretty traumatic for all the homeowners involved and the people that are witnessing it, and I actually have a pretty good scar on the inside of my thigh from being impaled on one of these fences — well, a four-foot one — trying to get over it to deal with a moose that was hung up on another fence. So, they are sharp and pointy. And it is pretty traumatic.
Coltrane likely made the pivotal impact. In a surprise vote, the Assembly passed Johnston’s ordinance by a narrow 6-5 vote. Existing fences were grandfathered in, meaning that property owners like Heather Wollrich won’t have to suffer great expense to replace her family’s fence.
But as Sinnot noted, “The number of properties using these fences is increasing… and moose mutilations will follow suit.”
Johnston’s ordinance strives to ensure that palisade fences — which are not an entrenched part of Anchorage’s already lacking architectural history — will be phased out over time. Which is the fundamental purpose for land use code: to find ways to increase livability, sustainability, and public safety while causing the least harm to residents. Hopefully, less kids will grow up with the unpleasant memories that affix themselves, quite graphically, once or twice a year.