Port officials grilled over cruise ship dock project

Holland America’s Westerdam anchored up in Gastineau Channel. Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO.
Juneau Port Director Carl Uchytil says he was surprised the State of Alaska needed to have a public comment period in order to transfer nearly 18 acres of submerged tideland to the city for its new cruise ship docks.

The state Department of Natural Resources issued a preliminary decision approving the land conveyance last week. The decision requires a 30 day public comment period and an additional review period before a final decision is issued.

Uchytil says he was led to believe by DNR that the decision would be an administrative action.

“Mea culpa. I should have understood the state process better,” Uchytil told the Juneau Assembly on Wednesday. “I didn’t realize that there was a public notice required.”

The Assembly grilled Uchytil and Port Engineer Gary Gillette over the Docks and Harbors Department’s decision to proceed with the project despite the city not owning the submerged lands.

On Tuesday, Docks and Harbors accepted bids to build the two floating cruise ship berths at an estimated cost of $54 million dollars.

Some Assembly members threatened to delay a financing measure until the city gained ownership of the tidelands. Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl argued it was too risky.

“I’m concerned about the financials of the project if we end up not owning that land,” Kiehl said. “And I’m concerned about our exposure if we sign a contract that says we will pay you to build and install these and we don’t know for sure that we’re going to be able to install.”

Other Assembly members commented that Docks and Harbors should have disclosed the land ownership issue sooner. Some wanted written assurances from the state that the land transfer was imminent. Uchytil quoted DNR’s preliminary decision, which he argued was good enough.

“Unless it’s found that the public interest in retaining the land in state clearly outweighs CBJ’s interest, it requires the Division of Mining, Lands, and Waters to convey the tideland and submerged lands, suitable for occupation and development, when requested by CBJ,” he said.

Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker wanted to know if Docks and Harbors did anything illegal by bidding the project without ownership of the land. City Attorney Amy Mead said she didn’t think so.

“I don’t think they were in violation of the statute proceeding in good faith,” Mead said. “The state’s not going to care if we decide to put ourselves out there and sign a contract that ultimately we can’t honor, because we don’t have the land. That’s our problem.”

On Tuesday, State Natural Resources Manager Anne Johnson said DNR did not have a position on Docks and Harbors moving forward with the project before the final decision is issued.

“It’s a business decision that they made,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t really have anything to do with the work that we’re doing on the preliminary decision.”

Ultimately, the Assembly voted 5-3 to proceed with the funding ordinance for the new docks, as long as city officials seek written assurances from the state that the land transfer is imminent. The no votes came from Kiehl and Assembly members Randy Wanamaker and Karen Crane.

The deadline to comment on DNR’s preliminary decision is December 9th. Johnson says it typically takes at least a couple weeks for the agency to issue a final decision.

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