Wetland classification up for debate

Posted: Tuesday, August 03, 2004

A Homer-area landowner says the Kenai Peninsula Borough should hold off on its plan to sell a 160-acre swamp at Mile 15 of East End Road because development on the property, such as a subdivision, could put the water supply for homes within the Eastland Creek drainage at risk.

"A subdivision or other activity on this water supply can destroy the pure fresh water of the springs and well in the area," said Lloyd Schade, an East End Road rancher and longtime resident.

U.S. Department of Administration maps, according to Schade, show the area to be 91 percent wetlands. Such wetlands, he said, perform many functions that are important to society, such as improving water quality, recharging groundwater and providing natural flood control.

The parcel should be classified as agricultural, then the federal government could monitor any activity under the Swamp Busters Act, Schade said. Borough plans to classify the land as "remote" would allow any activities on the land.

Paul Ostrander, land management officer for the borough, confirmed that the rural classification provides no restrictions on parcel use and that the borough intends to put the land on the market.

"It would be identical as if a private individual sells it," he said. "The borough intends to hold a sale pending assembly authorization."

The borough administration has recommended the rural classification. The Planning Commission has recommended agricultural, a somewhat more restrictive designation. Testifying at a recent commission meeting, Schade spoke in support of the agricultural rating or, alternatively, a preservation designation.

Ostrander said last week that if the land indeed is 90 percent wetlands, then the agricultural designation seemed inappropriate, as well.

He said the borough has been looking into the issue because its sources showed the land as between 30 and 50 percent wetlands. The assembly plans to discuss the classification at its meeting at 7 p.m. today at the Borough Building.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rates the usability of land on a scale from one to eight, eight being unusable, Ostrander said. Some of the 160 acres under debate were listed as 7W, which is considered wetlands. Ostrander said that appeared to have been a mistake, and that it should have been listed as 4W, a much more desirable classification.

Ultimately, it will be up to the assembly to decide between a rural or agricultural designation. If the land were to go on the market, the borough wouldn't be required to determine if there was a risk to water supplies. If a parcel were to be developed, other laws would protect drainages and groundwater.

"If there are valid concerns about water supply, the borough would be interested in hearing them," Ostrander said.

In a letter to the borough July 19, Schade's attorney, Stephen McAlpine, said he believed a rural classification was inappropriate for several reasons. The land is adjacent to privately held lands, he said. It provides an important watershed to several downhill and downstream properties.

McAlpine also noted the 7W classification, saying the soils "have severe limitations for most uses due to extreme wetness." The land's primary uses, he added, are limited to native woodland, wildlife habitat, recreation and watershed and water source protection areas. The rural classification would provide no protection for those considerations, he said.

McAlpine requested that the borough's Land Management Division delay classifying the land until a comprehensive analysis could be conducted and presented to the public.

The assembly will debate Resolution 2004-077, an omnibus measure that will set the classifications of some 20 parcels of borough land spread out across the peninsula, at tonight's meeting.

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