The Juneau Assembly has decided if it will allow the city’s Docks and Harbors Department to build two controversial floating cruise ship berths on the downtown waterfront. But its decision won’t be known by the public for a few more weeks.
The Assembly met in executive session for more than hour Monday to discuss how to rule on an appeal of a Planning Commission permit issued for the project in June.
After emerging from the closed-door session, Assembly members declined to reveal their direction to the city Law Department, which will draft a written decision to be approved at a future meeting.
Earlier Monday, the Assembly held a public hearing to take testimony from a group of local residents opposed to the new docks, as well as staff from the city’s Community Development and Docks and Harbors Departments.
Linnea and Arthur Osborne appealed the Planning Commission permit in July, about a month after it was issued. The board of directors of the Juneau Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial and local resident Dixie Hood joined as interveners.
The Osbornes, who own and operate the fishing vessel Mongoose, argued the Commission failed to adequately consider the impact of the new cruise ship docks on Juneau’s commercial fishing fleet. Specifically, Linnea Osborne said the city did not study whether the floating berths would limit access to the nearby Taku Smokeries dock.
“If we can’t get to the dock, we’ll have to go elsewhere,” Osborne said. “And it’s not just a matter of running into Auke Bay. If we lose our downtown processor, everyone loses.”
Taku Smokeries did not join the Osbornes’ appeal.
Fishermen’s Memorial Board President Bruce Weyhrauch argued the floating docks would ruin the view of Gastineau Channel from the monument and compromise the annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony.
“It’s going to block the historic purpose for locating the fishermen’s memorial there,” Weyhrauch said.
The Planning Commission was represented at the hearing by Deputy Community Development Director Greg Chaney. He declined to address Weyhrauch’s comments, because the location of the memorial was not part of the appeal.
However, Chaney noted the project has been the subject of significant scrutiny over the years, including several public meetings dating back before the Planning Commission’s involvement. When the Osbornes first raised their concerns in January, Chaney said the Commission delayed action on the permit in order to give the city’s Docks and Harbors Department time to address concerns about fishing vessel traffic.
“This project is better for the process,” Chaney said. “The Osbornes did come, they testified, they’re part of our commercial fishing fleet. The project was modified to address their concerns. Now, it didn’t address them maybe to the degree they would like, but I think it was an excellent example of the process at work.”
Docks and Harbors redesigned the project so the floating cruise ship docks would be further away from the Taku Smokeries dock. Port Director Carl Uchytil said the project as currently designed would provide 211 feet of clearance between the Taku dock and the southernmost cruise ship berth. Uchytil said that’s more than 2.5 times the clearance needed to meet the “reasonable access” standard for vessels less than 80 feet in length.
“We are also working with the Alaska Marine Exchange to develop technology, which will provide real time wind and current information at the facility to aid in safe navigation in this vicinity,” Uchytil said.
Assembly member Jesse Kiehl brought up the distance between the two docks in asking the Osbornes to clarify their objections.
“It seems to be a wider maneuvering room than just about any harbor we’ve got in Juneau,” Kiehl said. “Help me understand the safety concern.”
Linnea Osborne responded that navigating a boat into a harbor is a lot different than in an open channel.
“This is where I guess it’s so important that Docks and Harbors should have had an open, public meeting on these items and on these assessments to gain a better idea of this current and the navigation challenges that these guys deal with,” Osborne said.
In his comments Uchytil said mariners should always use caution and that nobody would be forced to use the dock when the weather wouldn’t allow it.
After the Assembly met to discuss the matter in executive session, Mayor Merrill Sanford and Assemblyman Johan Dybdahl, who presided over the appeal hearing, said they hoped a written decision would be ready in a couple weeks.
Two more appeals resolved
The Juneau Assembly resolved two other appeals of Planning Commission decisions on Monday.
Members voted to accept the findings of a hearing officer in a case pitting residents of the Montana Creek neighborhood against Coogan Construction. The Commission issued a conditional use permit allowing the company to operate a rock crusher in a nearby gravel pit.
Attorney Michael Lessmeier found substantial evidence supporting the Planning Commission’s decision. The Assembly discussed his ruling during its closed-door executive session. When members emerged, the vote was 8-1 to accept Lessmeier’s findings. Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl opposed the motion, saying he disagreed with Lessmeier’s interpretation of the law. Lessmeier ruled in the case after the Assembly recused itself, because former Assembly member Ruth Danner was among those who filed the appeal.
The other case was resolved before the Assembly meeting, when resident Janet Thrower agreed to dismiss her appeal of a decision allowing a second driveway at the Professional Plaza office complex near the airport. In return, the buildings’ owners agreed to install more signage.
The Assembly voted to refund Thrower’s $250 appeal fee to show good faith to those who choose to resolve appeals amicably.