Proposed coastal plan gives borough less say

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2007

For more than two years, the Kenai River Center on behalf of the borough has been revising the Kenai Peninsula Borough Coastal Management Plan to bring it in line with the current standards within the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Program.

Now the new plan is ready for action from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, which voted to introduce a measure to do that — Ordinance 2007-25 — at its July 10 meeting. A public hearing is set for Aug. 7.

Critics of the revisions say the state has effectively precluded local coastal districts from having much say over major development within their boundaries.

An official with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources said the revisions were required by state law to bring local management plans in step with state regulations adopted more than two years ago.

In a recent memo to the assembly, Gary Williams, coastal program coordinator at the center, said the process had reached its final step — for the borough, that is: adopting the plan's Enforceable Policies by ordinance.

He said the revisions went through the Planning Commission, public hearings, and extensive review by state and federal agencies and private industry groups before being submitted to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

The assembly must accept or reject the plan by Sept. 1.

Williams said the objective of the district coastal zone management plans, or CZMPs, was to provide the state a view of local concerns regarding proposed projects. The borough's 299-page borough coastal management plan document includes resource inventory, resource analysis and more than 125 maps and 23 pages of policies, which Williams called "the heart of the program" and the measure by which future development projects would be evaluated for consistency with coastal management goals.

The revised plan is changed from the earlier version in significant ways.

"The most striking feature of the document before you is the reduction in the areas that the Coastal Zone Management Program will have purview," Williams told the assembly. "This is the result of the legislative mandate to streamline the ACMP to avoid overlap in the effective oversight of development in Alaska."

That mandate came during Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration, which sought to and effectively did streamline Alaska's permit review process — so effectively, critics such as Cook Inletkeeper Director Bob Shavelson charge, as to "disenfranchise local communities" from decision-making.

Shavelson said the coastal management program appeared shaped to make permitting smoother for mega-projects like oil and gas development, but, perhaps, a nightmare of " bureaucratic red tape" for the little guy. He said the new language resulting from the Murkowski administration's policy had "handcuffed the local communities."

Nevertheless, after a year of negotiations with the state, the amended plan, including its list of enforceable borough policies, is going before the assembly. But new policies and the level of the borough's influence over future permitting decisions are a far cry from what existed prior to the state adopting wholesale changes to the statewide program.

According to the new borough document, policies are usually designed to create performance standards that a developer would be required to meet. Parties participating in a consistency determination — that is, state, federal and borough agencies — would use the local policies for making decisions. Rather than prohibiting certain types of activities, the policies would merely require certain conditions be met.

Under the new coastal management terms, however, the borough is precluded from developing enforceable policies for timber harvest and processing, or for air, land and water quality, which are exclusively administered by the state. Neither is it in the borough's purview to develop enforceable policies for energy facilities, transportation and utilities, mariculture, subsistence, habitat or historic resources because of the complexities of the requirements under the new state laws.

The borough can create policies regarding coastal development (floating facilities, docks, boat ramps, etc.), natural hazards (such as anti-erosion efforts), recreation and coastal access, fishing and seafood processing, and sand and gravel extraction. And the document includes guidance policies that are not enforceable and cannot be used to set conditions on projects, but may be used to guide use of private and public land.

In some areas, the new rules are "a disappointment," Williams said in a July 25 interview. He noted in particular the borough's now more limited ability to influence decisions regarding the waters surrounding the peninsula.

Coastal zone management, he said, is less about regulating and more about having a seat at the table when agencies outside the borough are discussing permits for projects within the borough.

"When the seat is taken away, we are left out in the cold," he said.

Williams did note that the document had resulted in the borough having "considerable authority" to comment when it comes to watershed management, thus giving the borough a say with regard to recreation activities around lakes and streams.

Still, the amended language leaves something to be desired.

"It's the best we can get," Williams said. "We hung in there to get all we were entitled to under the law."

Dave Gann, a natural resources specialist with DNR, said the 28 coastal districts have been working to bring local plans into compliance with state coastal management statutes and administrative code since those were amended more than two years ago.

He said the state's aim was to eliminate duplication in the state and local documents, and that the state believes state standards can be used effectively at the local level "to get the same things as were gotten before with local policy."

The ordinance before the assembly — if members vote to adopt it — is not the end of the game. Indeed, Gann said the amendments must undergo further DNR analysis and then be accepted by the commissioner. Then they go on to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for final approval.

Borough Planning Director Max Best said that considering the recently completed, lengthy negotiations with the state, there is reason to believe the borough's amended plan would at least meet state standards. If it should come back from the state or federal government for further revisions, the assembly would have to amend the ordinance.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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