The Alaska Department of Transportation wants to build a road in Bethel that would provide more residents with easy access to the airport. However, the proposed road passes through a Native allotment and the family who owns it says the state is trying to buy it at an unfair price.
After a decades-long process, the state wants to wrap up the acquisition of land for the road and is prepared to use the force of law if necessary. The Alaska Department of Transportation has been working on the Tundra Ridge Road Project since January 2000. Now it believes the end is in sight. The department plans to start putting asphalt down on the road in the summer of 2023.
The Polk family is standing in the state’s way. The Polks own the land next to H-Marker Lake, which the road would pass through. Warren Polk said the state made an offer to buy the property for the road a few months ago. Polk also said DOT told him if he doesn’t accept that offer, it would take the land through eminent domain.
“To steal the land from us,” Polk said. “That’s basically what eminent domain is, where they get the land so ridiculously cheap, it’s stealing.”
Eminent domain is a process by which the government can condemn private land for public use. DOT Spokesperson Shannon McCarthy wrote by email the department would “prefer to acquire the property through negotiation, not through eminent domain.” But she said that even if eminent domain was used to condemn the property, the landowners would be paid “fair market value.”
The Polks and DOT disagree on what fair market value means. Polk said the current offer of about $99,000 for land exceeding an acre is too low.
“The ‘fair market price’ was not the fair market price. And that’s, that’s an insult,” Polk said.
McCarthy said the number comes from an independent appraiser and was reviewed by an outside party. Because this is a publicly-funded project, DOT cannot offer compensation above that appraised fair market value. Polk said he has presented the state with a counteroffer, but if they don’t accept, he’s ready to go to court to fight the eminent domain claim.
Sam Fortier is an attorney who has defended Native allotment holders in eminent domain cases. He said the government can legally condemn land — even Native allotments — if its planned use for that land is in the public interest.
“If the state or the federal government wants to take your property, it can take your property,” Fortier said. “It just has to pay for it.”
Fortier said there are essentially only two arguments that a Native allotment holder can make in court.
“Defenses would be that it’s not in the public interest, but that’s a tough one. Another issue would be that the state is not offering enough money: ‘Our property is worth way more.'”
Fortier said terms of eminent domain are generally unfavorable to Native allotment holders. He said that it’s difficult to assign a fair value to land when the seller is unwilling to sell, and there often aren’t many sales of comparable properties.
Others say the state doesn’t have to go through Polk Road to connect the Bethel Highway loop. Acting City Manager Pete Williams said the city suggested an alternate route to the state: Going east of H-Marker Lake and connecting where Ptarmigan St. meets Tundra Ridge Subdivision at Kaliqtuq Road. He said the city’s request was ignored.
“And so I kind of feel like DOT has kind of circumvented the wishes of the citizens of Bethel,” Williams said.
DOT Spokesperson McCarthy said the alternate route would be longer, have more impact on wetlands and cost about $5 million more than the current plan. The state has the whole project budgeted at $2-5 million.
Even before the current episode, the Polk Road has a somewhat tortured history. Warren Polk said the road is actually called Uamuralria Drive after his late mother, Lucy Polk. He remembers when the road first came into existence around 40 years ago, when his family had just returned to Bethel from a vacation.
“When we came back that summer, there was a road out there. Cutting right through the property without permission or consent,” Polk said.
Polk said the city didn’t maintain the road back then, which may be because the city didn’t own the property. For decades, people used Uamuralria Drive anyway, and Polk said conditions became nearly impassable.
“It was kind of like that drag-racing, mud-road of Bethel back then,” Polk said.
He said there were times the family couldn’t access its own driveway, and they helped dig out countless drivers who became stuck in the mud. In 2008, the family said enough was enough. They closed the road and put up barriers at the ends of their property.
“Everybody looked at me like I was the bad guy because I closed the road down. First of all, they didn’t know you can do that with your own property,” Polk said. “Once we shut it down, the traffic slowed down, the road solidified, and we were able to get in and out.”
Some people, who had gotten used to accessing the road, ignored the barriers and got onto the property. Polk remembers multiple times he had to remove trespassers by force.
“I pulled out — I carry a katana — and I said, ‘You can either go back on that side, or I’m just gonna move you on that side,’” Polk said.
He said he didn’t have to use the sword in that case. Over the years, the city and state have made efforts to acquire the roadway from the family, but Polk said the offers were never fair. He heard accusations he was greedy, but said he was just trying to do right by his mother.
“We were never about money,” Polk said. “You must be respectful and fair when you’re doing land negotiations. It’s not only disrespectful to the heirs of Lucy Polk but to Lucy Polk herself.”
Call it Uamuralria Drive, Tundra Ridge Road, or Polk Road: Polk said he’d love to see the day when the family is no longer bothered about it.