Assembly OKs regs for roads over fish streams

Posted: Thursday, April 03, 2008

Developers intending to build roads over salmon streams will now have to meet new borough permit conditions covering design and construction of crossings and approaches.

Ordinance 2008-03, passed on a 7-2 vote, fulfills a desire expressed last fall by several assembly members after the body declined to amend a subdivision roads standards measure then under consideration with stream-crossing language.

The new ordinance sets project-specific conditions for crossing water bodies catalogued as important to the protection of anadromous fish under state law.

Among those conditions is a requirement that developers show they have applied for any necessary state and federal permits that may be required.

Also, the ordinance requires that any crossing be designed to survive a 100-year flood event as defined by state law. A licensed professional civil engineer must design such crossings and the Road Service Area Board must approve the design prior to construction.

Assemblywoman Grace Merkes questioned the administration about the effect the ordinance might have on platting. However, the ordinance would only affect actual construction. Platting could be done without an engineered design in place.

She also said she "could probably agree" it was something that should happen, but questioned whether now was the right time.

"In our day and age ... coming from the public's side and the subdividers' side, people that own the property would have to build these culverts," she said. "I hear them talking about $40,000 to $60,000."

She said she could not support more regulation and bureaucracy at this time.

Assemblyman Ron Long, of Seward, noted that last fall the assembly had some difficulty finding common ground on the roads ordinance then under consideration.

"Except the idea that if we were going to do one thing, and do one thing right, it would be at anadromous stream crossings. So this is the one thing that boiled up to the surface that we can do something about," he said.

The assembly also voted to consider a substitute for another roads standards measure, Ordinance 2008-05, which would revamp road standards more broadly. The substitute got a public hearing and was set for another on May 6.

According to the Road Service Area, Ordinance 2008-05 (substitute) is designed to ensure new roads are built well and that the service area only accepts good roads for maintenance.

Critics have said, however, that some changes would hurt small developers financially and that others take the wrong approach.

Borough road standards were last updated in 2002. Roads Director Gary Davis has said further changes would improve road quality, enhance RSA efficiency, and reduce maintenance costs, among other things.

One change would increase the amount of gravel used on a typical Category I road from 18 to 24 inches, as is required of all of the three other categories. Borough roads are categorized by the number of lots they serve, with C-I roads serving less than 10, C-II between 10 and 20, C-III between 21 and 50 and C-IV greater than 50 lots.

Adding six more inches of gravel to C-I roads would increase their elevations and allow for better drainage, Davis said.

"One of the biggest problems encountered on borough roads is the ponding of water, which is a problem that maintenance generally cannot fix," Davis told the assembly.

Other changes would require a six-inch cap of finer-grade gravel called Type 2 atop all C-I and C-II roads. Such processed gravel would be expected to reduce potholes, ruts, dust, surface softening and corrugation, Davis said. Gravel classified as Type 1 can have stones up to four inches in diameter, while Type 2 has stones no larger than two inches and increases the amounts of sand and fines.

Davis acknowledged arguments by developers that better maintenance could reduce the need for increased gravel and better materials, but noted the RSA's maintenance practices are constrained by costs.

"The RSA can generally only afford to pay its maintenance contractors to make two passes on a road when grading instead of four, which would improve gravel retention," he said.

Another problem the borough faces is maintaining poorly built roads over wetlands. Construction in wetlands typically requires some involvement by state and federal permitting agencies, but their regulations may not fully address the needs of the RSA, Davis said.

"While these agencies have concerns regarding water flow, siltation and habitat, the RSA's primary focus is on safe good roads that will not present problems in the future," he said.

The ordinance defines when such roads will require geotechnical and hydrological analyses and design by an engineer. The same applies to bridges and steep embankments. The ordinance makes provisions for easing those requirements when wetlands are small or when the developer has special expertise.

The new ordinance requires developers to make a financial guarantee equal to 10 percent of the construction cost, too little, perhaps to repair major problems, but enough to provide an incentive to make fixes quickly. If no problems surface, the surety money would be returned to the developer in one year.

"The financial guarantee ensures that the developer will make good on their warranty," Davis said.

Terry Cowart, a developer who has offered constructive criticism at public hearings on various roads ordinances in the past, said the borough roads division had "made great strides" and corrected many problems in the ordinance, but difficulties remain.

"I'm a developer, so I have a personal interest in this," Cowart said in an interview Monday. "But I'm also a taxpayer."

In an interview Monday, Cowart said the ordinance still did not read well and was unclear about what impact it would have on work within a right of way that was not directly associated with the road itself, such as driveways. He suggested a provision giving the roads director discretion over whether or not to impose standards could be problematic.

Further, Cowart argued the borough should show empirical evidence that roads built in the past have failed in order to justify requiring additional expensive road materials that could increase the cost of new roads three or four times. The borough road division appears to be proposing some changes based "on gut feelings," he said.

"I'd rather live with a few big rocks (from Type 1 gravel) then put this expensive cream on top of the roads," he said.

He called the engineering requirement for wetlands work "oppressive," and said the financial guarantee was unnecessary and would prove ineffective.

Cowart said Tuesday that he was glad the assembly set another hearing, saying more time was needed to digest the proposed changes and offer alternatives.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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