Public needs to be heard

South peninsula residents have legitimate concerns about leases

Posted: Monday, January 05, 2004

Editor's Note: The following is a response to Sen. Tom Wagoner's column on shallow gas leases which was printed in the Peninsula Clarion on Dec. 29.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Resolution 2003-129, of which I am a co-sponsor, asks three things:

1. To buy back the Homer area leases;

2. To amend Alaska Statutes 31.05.125 and 38.05.177 to eliminate the ability of the state to

waive local land use regulations; and

3. To require notice of lease applications be published by local news media if available, and to republicize if more than one year elapses between submission of the lease application and final action.

As I recall, the intent of House Bill 69 and other measures that passed the Legislature in the 2003 session, was a well intentioned and needed effort to streamline what had become a very cumbersome permitting process. But I also believe that as a result of House Bill 69 and the coastal zone management changes that the state has gone overboard. Putting up roadblocks to public participation is not good public policy, nor good government. It is the public, after-all, that all of us serve.

It was appreciated that Sen. Wagoner was the only senator willing to amend some of what the Senate put into House Bill 69. And please understand, I believe there is good in that bill that needs to remain. Prior to going to the Senate it was supported by Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer. However, so much was added, that although Sen. Wagoner's amendment certainly helped, the one

issue we all felt was wrong, was retained.

In the interim, Rep. Paul Seaton and Sen. Gary Stevens have pre-filed bills to buy back those leases, with the proviso to extend a credit to the purchaser toward new leases which is in response to public requests.

Did landowners on the southern Kenai Peninsula know they do not own subsurface rights? Perhaps. True, that is a realm of buyer beware. However, because of the power extended to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, an appointed position, in House Bill 69, these same property owners are keenly concerned about what will happen with their lands and about private property rights that all of us cherish.

It has been my observation that the folks of the Kenai Peninsula consider their private property rights to be almost sacrosanct. It is one reason the Kenai Peninsula has so little zoning.

In reviewing the DNR history of the shallow gas leases, both in the Mat-Su and on the Kenai Peninsula, these were initially advertised in February of 2000 in the Peninsula Clarion, the Anchorage Daily News and the Frontiersman, for one day. That satisfied the requirements as set out in House Bill 394 in 1996 (Alaska Statute 38.055.177). There were leases being considered for the southern peninsula as well as Nikiski and Kasilof.

To then say that Homer was notified is a stretch. Advertising in the Clarion did clearly notify the north peninsula area, but not Homer. According to the the Peninsula Clarion's circulation manager, currently the newspaper delivers 23 issues of the Clarion to Homer via mail and sells about 25 to 35 per day besides, for a total circulation south of Anchor Point of 60 issues per day, maximum. Had this been advertised in the Homer News, it would have reached a circulation of 3,200! That is a vast difference. Note, too, the leases were initially advertised in 2000, but were not let until June of 2003, with no further noticing. It is my view that posting of notices to the Homer Post Office is useless, because where it is posted, if it is posted, is in a small box behind the stamp machine, where it is rarely seen by the public. This issue of noticing to the public is in my view a violation of due process.

As noted by the Department of Natural Resources in its report of the history of these leases, DNR received 14 public comments from the Talkeetna area. (The leases were advertised in the local paper, the Frontiersman.) Subsequently, DNR arranged several public hearings in the community, and as a result withdrew that sale noting "the staff met and corresponded with the Talkeetna Community Council and residents of the area. ... Geologists from two agencies independently reported that this prospective lease would be of only marginal interest for commercial production of coalbed methane and that the area is estimated to have low potential ... (and) have concluded that, in this case, community concerns outweigh the probability of significant benefits to the State."

Would the Homer area have been given the same consideration? I believe so.

How many times during the ensuing discussions has the Kenai Peninsula Borough's oil and gas liaison stated that the lower peninsula is of marginal interest? The attendance at the two public hearings in Homer, conducted long after the fact, certainly demonstrated community feelings.

Where is, where was, the consideration for that before the leases were let?

It has been said that buying back the leases would be bad for business on the peninsula. I disagree.

To the contrary, good business practices would indicate that they will be far more comfortable working in an area where proper groundwork has been laid beforehand. Unfortunately, the people of Homer were not included in the process, and it was wrong.

Does the southern peninsula oppose gas and or oil development? I believe residents have legitimate concerns because of unstable soils, the bluff, their drinking water supply (one lease is directly under the city of Homer reservoir) and the impact on the tourism industry, as well as the issues reviewed above.

These are all issues that should have received a thorough review before the leases were let. To just say we oppose all development flies in the face of the facts. The borough economic reports certainly indicate a rather healthy economy in Homer. I think the record will show that considerable gas reserves will be tapped in the North Fork area outside of Anchor Point that will benefit both the Homer area and the north peninsula for some years to come.

Development is a given, and it will happen. But it has to happen right, with public planning and public input.

As Gov. Frank Murkowski said in his address to the Alaska Municipal League last November, with resource development there must be public participation. It didn't happen here.

We are asking to start the process over and give us the same consideration that was extended to Talkeetna, and we would certainly appreciate Sen. Wagoner's support in that effort.

Milli Martin is a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. She represents District 9, the South Peninsula.

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