Rough times face coastal management

Bills seek to extend deadline for districts to update plans

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Two bills introduced in the Alaska House and Senate last week seek to provide coastal communities more time to revise their district coastal management plans that currently are due in March.

That's a deadline they are unlikely to meet.

Current law requires coastal municipalities, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough, to submit draft management plan revisions to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources by next month.

That would leave enough time for the drafts to be reviewed, a 21-day public comment period held, and revisions adopted before a July 1, 2005 deadline established by HB 191, a bill that became law in 2003 that created a new coastal management program and established the Coastal Program Evaluation Council.

HB 191 called for updating local coastal plans to conform to the new state program, and the Kenai Peninsula's 15-year-old management plan was no exception. But local districts had to await certain state actions before they could launch their own revision efforts.

The borough was finally able to begin rewriting its local district plan last fall. In September, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly accepted a $50,000 grant from the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development and appropriated a $10,000 match from borough funds to cover the costs of the wholesale update of the borough document.

That left just seven months to meet the March deadline.

Dan Bevington, then the borough's coastal management coordinator, called the March deadline ambitious and unrealistic, yet he warned that future funding for the borough's coastal management program could be put in jeopardy if the borough failed to meet it. Bevington has since resigned his job with the borough.

Now, House Bill 146, offered by Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Senate Bill 102, submitted by Senate Majority Leader Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, would give communities wrestling to update their out-of-date coastal management plans a reprieve by extending the July 1, 2005, deadline as far out as July 1, 2006.

As local districts pursue that work, the Department of Natural Resources has been trying to make its proposed amendments to the Alaska Coastal Management Program fit provisions of federal coastal management regulations. In September, state officials submitted proposed amendments to the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which must, in turn, determine that the proposed state revisions are consistent with the National Environmental Policy Act.

In November, the state was informed its submission was not sufficient for the OCRM to make a finding of preliminary approval. The state submitted a revised amendment Dec. 16.

On Jan. 28, OCRM Director Eldon Hout outlined several issues still to be resolved to ensure compatibility between the state and federal programs and the environmental policy act and said the federal agency still could not issue a finding of preliminary approval.

He noted that failure to meet the July 1 deadline set by HB 191 would leave Alaska with no enforceable statewide coastal management standards, and only the existing, already approved district plans in force.

Hout recommended that the state continue to rely on existing Alaska Coastal Management Plan regulations and that the Legislature remove or extend the July 1 deadline established by HB 101. The bills introduced by Kerttula and Stevens seek to do just that.

Meanwhile, officials from the local districts have expressed concerns that new state regulations, if adopted, would serve to limit the local voice in coastal-management decisions.

Among the ideas included in the yet-to-be-approved state amendments is a concept called "flow from," that would limit the policies local district management plans could enforce. That is, district policies could only "flow from" a list of uses, activities and impacts within the state standards. For example, since state policy standards govern the placement of structures and discharge of dredged material into "coastal waters," a local district plan could not dictate where dredge material might be discharged on shore.

In another example, the proposed state amendments would leave local plans unable to address matters already regulated or authorized by state or federal law without first demonstrating a local concern under specific state statutes.

Thus, districts would have to analyze each intended district enforceable policy "to ensure not only that it 'flows from' an enumerated state standard, but also ascertain whether the matter is already regulated or authorized by state or federal law."

In 2003, backers argued that the new state law was intended to retain the benefits of federal coastal management law while eliminating duplication and complexities contained in the existing state program. Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, an environmental group dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed, had a different opinion.

He said the current difficulties state and local district officials face in writing approvable coastal management policies stem directly from HB 191 itself, which was an attempt, he said, to "pull the teeth" out of a program "most people see as successful."

That bill, Shavelson said, was "hastily rammed through" by an administration seeking to eliminate local input into coastal management planning that it perceived to be an impediment to future resource development and resource revenue streams.

"The federal law (the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972) was always envisioned as a local, state and federal partnership," Shavelson said. "Congress recognized you could not have effective coastal management without meaningful participation from local districts."

Sen. Gary Stevens said his bill, along with that of Kerttula, recognized that coastal districts simply need more time.

"The local communities were having too much trouble getting their own plans written," he said.

The same thing applies at the state level, he added.

Stevens said he tried to amend the state law last year in an attempt to extend the deadline, but was unsuccessful. Asked if he thought lawmakers were ready to approve a deadline change now, all he would say was, "I hope they are this time."

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