Scenic Sterling Highway?

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

HOMER -- Already named a scenic state route, the Sterling Highway between Anchor Point and the end of the Homer Spit could be headed for designation as a National Scenic Byway.

Diane Reagan of the Division of Statewide Planning within the Alaska Department of Transporta-tion recommended Monday that the Homer City Council consider spearheading an effort to raise the 15 miles of highway to national recognition.

That section of roadway has held the designation "State of Alaska Scenic Byway" since January 1998. It is famous for its stunning vistas, she said, from dense forests to the high bluffs overlooking Kachemak Bay, Cook Inlet, as well as a view of the distant volcanoes. Beyond that, there are exceptional wildlife viewing, world-class sport fishing and beautiful scenic views of the Kenai Mountains.

"The route is recognized for its scenic, natural, recreational, cultural and archaeological qualities," she said.

The purpose of the National Scenic Byways program is to recognize and preserve the nation's most scenic, historic and recreational roads, and to promote economic development through tourism, she said.

A designation can increase business, revenue and jobs. It can also provide a local voice in state decisions about the highway corridor and result in higher ranking for future highway projects, she added.

The national program includes various levels of scenic byways designations, but 15 highways around the nation are considered the best of the best and are known as "All-American Roads." The Seward Highway is one, Reagan said.

To win recognition as a national scenic byway, a route must be designated a state byway, it must have a corridor management plan, and must have an indication of local support.

The management plan might include ideas for preserving the corridor, economic development, highway design themes, marketing plans and development strategies, Reagan said.

The next opportunity for pursuing federal grants to fund a corridor management plan for the Sterling Highway will be the spring of this year. Applications are due by May 31.

Reagan warned that the national program could be gone after January 2002.

City Manager Ron Drathman asked whether the national designation application might not be extended to include the entire highway from Soldotna and Kenai or even Cooper Landing to Homer. He said the geography along the route changes dramatically, and each area has its unique attractions. He suggested that borough and city municipal leaders might be encouraged to join forces in an effort to win such recognition.

Reagan said the program is flexible enough that coordinated efforts between communities along the whole highway might pay off. The communities might also pursue several applications at once. She also noted that natural beauty is not the only criteria for winning national recognition.

An example of a designation aimed at recognizing "pure Americana" is the recent national designation granted to "the Strip" in Las Vegas, she said.

Councilman John Fenske said a recent development in borough law has left him concerned about unchecked development along the highway. Called "Local Option Zoning," it permits small areas to apply for zoning designations from the borough. Recently, an area around the intersection of Diamond Ridge Road and the Sterling Highway got zoned to allow virtually every kind of development in the same area that is now primarily residential.

Fenske said he would like to see some kind of control over that kind of thing, and said the federal scenic byways program might provide that.

"We should pursue this," Council member Rick Ladd said, who added that he, too, was "concerned about development" and interested in trying to preserve the scenic nature of the highway corridor.

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