Refuge lake eyed for landing area

Pilots float noise solution

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2000

Floatplane noise is an issue with some lakeside residents. However, at least one local pilot opposes regulating noise until there is some other place for floatplanes to land.

Soldotna pilot Jerry Near suggests turning Headquarters Lake on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge into a floatplane base. That idea does not fly with refuge managers, though.

"This lake wouldn't really work. It's too shallow," said refuge manager Robin West. "It wouldn't be legal. It wouldn't be compatible with our purposes, which are wildlife and wildlife-dependent recreation."

Turning Headquarters Lake into a floatplane base would take an act of Congress, he said. Even if Congress approved, the Eagle Protection Act would still apply. Up to two pairs of eagles nest by the lakeshore each year, he said.

Floatplane noise has been an issue since September, when Gene Kempf played a recording of a plane taking off over his Mackey's Lakes home for a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

"I'm running this at 100 decibels," he said. "The noise that's bothering some of us is 105 decibels."

Assembly members held their hands over their ears.

Kempf said the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration says exposure to 115 decibels for just seven-and-a-half minutes per day will damage hearing. Mike O'Toole, who lives by Kempf, said he believes it is irresponsible to let his 4-year-old daughter play outdoors when planes make that much noise. Kempf asked the assembly to pass an ordinance limiting noise.

"I'm one of the guys that makes the noise," Near said Wednesday.

He has suggested moving commercial floatplanes to Headquarters Lake several times since Kempf rattled the assembly. There are no homes nearby, he said. The location is perfect.

However, most of the lakeshore is wetlands. The only high ground is at the northwest end, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service parks its planes, Near said. He suggested damming the lake to flood surrounding wetlands. The new north shore would butt high ground where pilots could tie their planes. The refuge could keep the whole west shore.

"It's not like these guys (the refuge) are hurting for lakes," he said. "They own most of the borough. As far as wildlife goes, you just have to get two or three miles out of town and there's plenty of wildlife. Here, we're just talking about two or three square miles for people to use. Don't they count anymore?"

West said moving the planes to Headquarters Lake just puts the problem in someone else's yard.

"If this is a noise issue and the noise is in excess of what human health can bear, there are more people at Headquarters Lake," he said. "We have school groups. We have the visitor center and trails. Many tens of thousands of visitors come here each year."

Converting Headquarters Lake or dredging a floatplane basin by the Soldotna airport would be costly, he said. The logical solution is to expand the existing floatplane basin at the Kenai Municipal Airport.

Kenai assembly member Tim Navarre said that if the borough restricts floatplane noise, plane owners could sue. If there is no solution, lakeside residents could go to court. He recently raised the Headquarters Lake idea with Alaska's congressional delegation.

"We're not starting a fight with Fish and Wildlife or anyone else," he said. "We're just trying to find a solution. If Headquarters Lake isn't it, we'll find another one."

Soldotna assembly member Pete Sprague said that he, Near, Kempf, O'Toole, West, borough Mayor Dale Bagley and Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster discussed possible solutions during a meeting last week. Headquarters Lake is an interesting solution, Sprague said.

"But interesting and workable aren't necessarily the same thing," he said. "If it did happen, it would be years away. It doesn't address immediate concerns such as Mackey's Lakes."

Bagley said he is neither for nor against putting a floatplane base on Headquarters Lake, but he recognized the battle over it that might ensue with the refuge.

"They have their office overlooking Headquarters Lake. They're going to fight it," he said.

Another solution might be to consult the Native corporations that own land around Spirit Lake off Strawberry Road, he said. However, there may be plans to build a lodge and sell residential lots by Spirit Lake, he said. Whether the Native corporations would consider turning the lake into a floatplane base is unknown.

Bagley said improving the Kenai floatplane basin may be the cheapest solution.

Near said the present Kenai waterway is narrow, making it difficult to turn planes in windy weather. There is no separate taxiway, so taxiing planes block the waterway. Construction of a separate taxiway might solve those problems, he said, but there are residential areas near the basin. Increased floatplane traffic might draw complaints.

Kenai Airport Manager Rebecca Cronkhite said the airport plans construction of a separate taxiway in 2006 at a cost of about $520,000. That is a hazy plan far in the future, though. Now, she said, there is seldom enough traffic that taxiing planes on the waterway are an issue.

"We could probably make a great improvement by simply widening and lengthening the present waterway," she said.

Cronkhite said noise is a sensitive issue.

"I know the folks at Mackey's Lakes are upset," she said. "If we had more noise here, people would be upset -- but this is an airport."

However, the Kenai airport controls local airspace. To the extent safety allows, it can route planes away from residential neighborhoods.

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