Funter Bay landowners object as Juneau eyes expansion

CBJ staff recommends annexing the red areas labeled A, B and D.

CBJ staff recommends annexing the red areas labeled A, B and D. (Courtesy City & Borough of Juneau)

The City and Borough of Juneau is eyeing four tracts of land it could annex into the borough. The most controversial piece includes the northern end of Admiralty Island and Horse and Colt islands, which have a number of mostly seasonal cabins.

At least a half-dozen people with property on Admiralty Island’s Funter Bay wrote to the Assembly this month to object.

“There’s taxable wealth out there that the borough wants to tax, and nobody wants to be taxed because we see no benefit at all from it,” said Gordon Harrison, who has owned a waterfront cabin on Funter Bay for more than 20 years. At the most, property owners could expect added zoning regulations over their remote region.

We’re Alaskans that have built cabins out there,” Harrison said. “We don’t have any electricity, some have some wiring for a generator, most don’t have plumbing. Any kind of building code would just be a terrible, terrible disservice to people out there.”

A Juneau commission studied annexation options in 2007 and urged that a “careful balance” should be struck between any new taxes and services delivered.

Remote property owners within the borough, such as those on the Taku River, are already unhappy with their level of services, the commission wrote a decade ago.

Other property owners make the argument that they would be asked to pay taxes without any added services.

If there were actual services provided to the residents there, whether they’re part-time or permanent, I don’t think there’d be any question that people would support it,” said property owner Joel Bennett. “But with no services?”

These types of debates play out all over rural Alaska as boroughs look to expand their tax base.

The Juneau Assembly discussed expansion back in December and referred the issue to its Lands Committee. The Assembly directed lands department staff to write a memo outlining how Juneau could annex new territories.

“The model borough boundaries were established by the State of Alaska several years ago as a guideline for where boroughs should expand to,” explained the city’s Lands Manager Greg Chaney, who penned a memo last month that recommended how Juneau could best expand out to the “model boundaries” drawn by the state.

These model boundaries are only a guideline and don’t hold legal weight. That was demonstrated in 2011 when Petersburg Borough annexed Hobart Bay – which lies within Juneau’s model boundary. Juneau took its challenge all the way to the state’s Supreme Court and lost.

Chaney said that was a teachable moment.

“If we wait and we don’t expand out to our model borough boundaries, neighboring communities could rightfully apply to have those areas annexed,” he said.

It’s a symptom of Alaska’s novel “unorganized borough” — unclaimed areas that breed competition between neighbors.

“It does tend to pit communities against each other,” Chaney said. “It tends to pit local governments against people who are in areas that are more remote who don’t want to be in a borough for lots of reasons. We’re Alaskans, we like our independence and so that’s not a surprise.”

If the Juneau Assembly petitions for the annexations, the state’s Local Boundary Commission would ultimately decide the issue. But so far, it’s just an outline; the Assembly hasn’t put it on the agenda. But that doesn’t mean potentially affected property owners aren’t already on their guard.

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