Juneau moves forward with new cruise docks despite not owning submerged land

Juneau cruise ship berths
The City and Borough of Juneau plans to open bids next week for a project to replace its existing cruise ship docks with two floating berths. But the city has yet to gain title to the submerged tideland it wants to build above. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

Juneau’s Docks and Harbors Department is moving forward with plans to build two floating cruise ship docks on the downtown waterfront even though the city does not own the underwater tidelands above which the project will be built.

Port officials say the issue is not a major concern, and they expect the submerged land to be deeded to the city by its current owner, the State of Alaska, before construction gets underway next year. But critics say it’s another example of what’s wrong with the project.

Juneau Port Engineer Gary Gillette says the state has worked with the city throughout the planning, design and permitting of the floating cruise ship docks, and the Department of Natural Resources supports transferring nearly 18 acres of submerged land to the city.

“They are recommending it,” Gillette says. “So they are convinced this is a good project, this is a good use of state land to be conveyed to the city. But the process isn’t done until it is done.”

DNR last week issued a preliminary decision approving the land conveyance. A 30 day public comment period is required, after which there will be a review period before the department issues a final decision.

The Docks and Harbors Department on Tuesday accepted bids from four contractors interested in building the new docks. The bids from Pacific Pile & Marine, Manson Construction, Kiewit, and Orion Marine Contractors will be opened next week.

Carl Uchytil December 2011
Port Director Carl Uchytil speaks to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce in 2011. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.

Port Director Carl Uchytil defended Docks and Harbors’ decision to move forward with the project before the city officially owns the submerged tidelands.

“We think the risk is diminutive,” Uchytil says. “That we’re going to get it, and it’s not unlike other tideland projects we’ve pursued previously.”

Five years ago the city requested state tidelands to satisfy a conservation requirement in an Army Corp of Engineers permit issued for the Auke Bay Loading Facility. DNR officials originally told the city the land transfer would be approved, before not allowing it. The city ended up resolving the matter by going to the legislature, but only after the loading facility had been completed.

Juneau Assembly member Jesse Kiehl worked on the legislation as part of his day job as a staffer for Senator Dennis Egan.

“At one point the city was getting trespass notices from the state for a dock that we’d built based on some staff assurances,” Kiehl says.

Gillette says the Auke Bay scenario is totally different than the land conveyance being proposed now.

“They had made the decision. The people that made those decisions had moved on. One had retired and one moved out of state,” Gillette says. “The new people came in and said ‘No, our state statutes don’t allow us to do that. We don’t agree with our predecessors’ decision.'” Totally different than this. DNR is recommending this conveyance.”

Kiehl acknowledges the agency’s preliminary decision bodes well for the eventual approval of the transfer. But he says Docks and Harbors’ should learn from its past mistakes.

“Docks and Harbors needs to think twice before contracting to build something on land it doesn’t own yet,” says Kiehl.

Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial President Bruce Weyhrauch is a critic of the proposed dock expansion, because of the impact it will have on the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Weyhrauch says the city is holding itself to a different standard than private developers. And he has another complaint.

“None of what Docks and Harbors is seeking now was ever disclosed to the public,” Weyhrauch says.

The city applied for the land conveyance almost two years ago. Gillette says the application was put on hold while the city resolved an appeal of a conditional use permit issued by the Juneau Planning Commission. That appeal was filed by commercial fishermen Arthur and Linnea Osborne, with the Fishermen’s Memorial intervening on their behalf. The Assembly ultimately upheld the permit and has consistently supported Docks and Harbors’ plans for the project.

The Assembly Finance Committee will discuss financing for the cruise ship dock project at its meeting Wednesday night.

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