Group seeks Scenic Byway designation

Posted: Sunday, July 04, 2004

Motoring along the Kenai Peninsula's scenic highways as they course over mountain passes, by pristine rivers and streams and through forests of tall evergreens can be among the most pleasurable experiences one can have in a car especially for those with the leisure time to stop and smell the fireweed.

It is just those things, along with their attendant recreational opportunities, that draw thousands of visitors to the peninsula each year.

A grass-roots effort under way may soon open doors to federal grants that could be used to enhance that experience for visitors and peninsula residents.

On Tuesday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is expected to consider Resolution 2004-051, which would support designation of an 81-mile section of the Sterling Highway through the central peninsula as a state Scenic Byway.

Other portions of the highway currently hold that designation, including a 38-mile section from the Sterling Highway-Seward Highway intersection to Skilak Road and another 23-mile stretch from Anchor Point to Land's End in Homer.

If the effort is successful, organizers say they would explore having the entire highway designated a National Scenic Byway in the summer of 2005.

If that happened, the Sterling Highway would complete America's first National Scenic Byway loop linking the Seward All-American Road (the Seward Highway) to Alaska's Marine Highway National Scenic Byway and create a unique marketing and travel opportunity for the peninsula, supporters say.

A state Scenic Byway designation can mean advantages for communities along the highway. According to supporters, research has shown that travelers like driving scenic and culturally important roads. Such roads often appear in travel guides, are marked as such on maps and get promoted in state tourism marketing efforts.

Both the state and national designations provide access to discretionary grants, which can fund projects to enhance byways with interpretive signs and capital improvements along the corridor, including restrooms, pullouts, parking areas and even visitors centers.

The designation itself is based on the road's archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities. Currently, 96 roads are designated National Scenic Byways in 39 states, according to resolution sponsor Milli Martin.

Some skeptical residents, however, have viewed the designation as a possible precursor to land-use restrictions that might harm commerce.

Kasilof resident Joyce Fischer, a 34-year resident of the peninsula and wife to assembly member Paul Fischer, said she wouldn't have known about the proposal had her husband not been an assembly member. She said she became concerned and went searching for information about the program on the Internet.

"I became very upset," she told the assembly May 18. "If you know the area that we live in, you know we are very conservative. We like government to please stay out of our doorstep. We don't even want a fire service area."

She said she learned that a consulting group is busy developing a plan and putting together an application for the state designation, yet she and other residents knew nothing of it.

"Where is the representation of us?" she asked.

Areas around Homer, Skilak Lake and Seward already have a designation, Fischer said, meaning the central peninsula communities around Sterling, Kasilof and Ninilchik are the only ones involved in the proposed assembly resolution and the Scenic Byway application effort. Fischer voiced concerns about future zoning and questioned statements she's heard suggesting the designation would cost residents nothing. The possible ramifications of a byway designation should be well known before it gets assembly support, she said.

"I would like to see you put this far behind you and give it a lot more study and a whole lot more information," she said.

Nancy Casey of Soldotna is part of a consulting group working on the Sterling Highway byway effort. Two others include Chris Mertl, with Jensen Yorba Lott Inc., a Juneau landscape architecture firm, and John Whiteman, a byway-planning expert from Boulder, Colo. Efforts to reach Mertl and Whiteman for comment Friday were not successful.

Casey said she expected the efforts of the consulting group and the application process would provide answers easing public concerns and show that the designation would not alter existing land-use policies. She said the state designation is simple and essentially requires no changes in law.

"It offers promotional and marketing opportunities, and that is pretty much where it ends," she said.

As for a future national designation, the national program's only land-use requirement is a ban on billboards. Alaska's voter-approved signage regulations, which do not permit billboards or offsite advertising and which are considered among the most comprehensive in the nation, already meet the National Scenic Byway requirement, Casey said.

Application for a national designation requires creation of a local organizing group and a corridor partnership plan, a management tool for assessing current conditions and maintaining the attributes that earned the designation.

"The group has no power to dictate new land-use regulation," Casey said.

Since the May 18 assembly meeting, Casey has attended community meetings held in Sterling, Kasilof and Ninilchik, where she explained more about the program to sometimes-skeptical audiences. Those meetings drew small numbers, likely because of residents' busy summer schedules, she said.

Of the five who attended in Sterling, two were business owners in the tourism business. Casey said even though Sterling depends on tourism for part of its local economy, the consensus among those attending was that they would rather not have the designation.

Five people also attended the Kasilof meeting, but three were Joyce and Paul Fischer and Ed Oberts, assistant to borough Mayor Dale Bagley. Casey said the group voiced no particular opposition to the designation, but did raise concerns about land use.

"They are very protective of property rights above all other concerns," Casey said. "They appeared willing to sacrifice the benefits of the byway program to protect those rights."

The eight or so who showed up in Ninilchik appeared somewhat more open to the idea of the designation, Casey said.

"There was a balance of those with some experience with the program and those that had land-use concerns," she said. "They all wanted a good understanding before they made a decision."

Casey said the consulting group is seeking residents willing to serve on the Byway Planning Group. She said she wants the group to be representative of the community as a whole.

Tuesday, she hopes to present her findings from the three community meetings to the assembly, along with a copy of the state application, which the assembly requested.

Martin said Friday the fate of the resolution will depend on what the assembly hears.

Assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling said she, too, needed further information.

"Without seeing a plan for how the corridor would be managed, it's hard to support it," she said.

Other questions concerning the effects of designation as a state or national byway remain, such as how to chose which intrinsic qualities should be cited as reasons for the designation. Casey said the current effort on behalf of the 81-mile section of the highway is focusing on recreation opportunities, including hiking, biking, canoeing and world-class fishing, among other things.

The designation can be removed from a roadway if there is a dramatic change in those intrinsic qualities, she said, but she added that she doesn't see the recreational and fishing qualities going away anytime soon.

"I don't see private development impairing those qualities such that they would remove a byway status," she said.

In May, Casey pitched the proposal to the borough Planning Commission. She noted that federal grants that could become available even under the state designation are typically 80-20 match programs. Thus, accepting a grant would mean a local outlay. About $25 million per year is allocated to byway programs around the nation, she said. All planning, design, decision-making and the setting of priorities are done at the local level.

Among Casey's duties is creation of a corridor partnership plan necessary for a national designation. That plan will include the priorities set by the local byway group, which would be made up of local residents and business owners.

Casey said she expects to submit the state nomination package to state Transportation Commissioner Mike Barton later this week. Then she will proceed with putting together the much more involved national nomination package, which will require the partnership program, community support letters and creation of the byway group.

The planning commissioners voted unanimously to recommend the assembly support the effort.

Also backing the scenic byway proposal was the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, which adopted a supporting resolution April 27.

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