Homeowners plea for access to Beach Road as Haines Borough assesses landslide hazard

The Haines Borough erected barriers to block access to the slide area on Beach Road. (Photo by Henry Leasia)

The Haines Borough says it is still unsafe for some residents to access their homes on Beach Road after a landslide swept through the area last month. Anxious to return, homeowners expressed their frustration with the borough during a Monday town hall teleconference with state legislators.

The landslide that swept down Mt. Riley on December 2 has created a hazardous situation for people living along Beach Road. After surveying the area, geologists with the Alaska Division of Geologic and Geophysical Surveys said that fractured bedrock along the hillside could come loose with no warning.

For that reason, the borough has closed access to the slide area and the homes nearest to it. It’s uncertain when the road will open again and whether some homeowners will be able to move back to their properties.

“We do not feel that we have open and transparent communication with the team making decisions about our future,” said Haines resident Todd Winkel, who owns and operates a lodge along Beach Road where visitors can rent cabins and hotel rooms.

“Residents who live underneath that mass of rock have an idea of what we would like to see, which includes taking some risk, but it’s also risk to us as victims and it’s risk to our property and we would like to have a conversation about that,” Winkel said.

Winkel asked the Upper Lynn Canal’s state legislators to help make sure residents are included in the decisions about the future of Beach Road. Other Beach Road residents who called in to the teleconference said they wanted to be allowed to begin restoring road access and electricity to the neighborhood so they could gather belongings and protect their homes from deteriorating while they’re unoccupied.

The Upper Lynn Canal State Senator Jesse Kiehl said that while there are public safety considerations, he would follow up with local officials to see if they can facilitate better access to the slide area and improve communication with Beach Road residents.

“When it comes to access to those houses out Beach Road, I really do want to work with you and Todd and see what we can coordinate,” Kiehl said. “I’m inclined to agree that months and months to get out there is really problematic.”

The Haines Borough has eased restrictions on access to Beach Road in recent weeks. The mandatory evacuation area has shrunk as geologists have been able to get better information about the stability of the slope above Beach Road.

While initially the borough said it would prosecute residents who entered the slide area, Haines Borough Mayor Douglas Olerud said it has since changed its policy.

“We let them know we were not going to be prosecuting any Beach Road residents for going out to their property or crossing the slide in the hazard area. We understand that while we consider that an extremely dangerous area and do not advise people to go there, that residents of that area can access it at their own risk, knowing that each of us has a different tolerance of risk,” Olerud said.

The Haines Borough has been updating its website and social media with the latest geologic analysis of the slide area.

The borough has been in regular contact with displaced Beach Road residents over email and in person. They have also set up weekly meetings where Beach Road residents can ask questions to the team of geologists analyzing the stability of the area.

Olerud said the borough is doing the best it can to be transparent.

“I think part of it is we’re not giving them the information they want to hear. It’s not that we’re holding anything back. What they want to hear is that they can go to their houses, that we’re going to be building them a road, that they’ll be putting power in there. I understand that,” Olerud said. “The information that I have been given is that that’s not safe for us to do at this point in time.”

Recently, the borough and Alaska Department of Transportation solicited proposals from geotechnical engineers for a report on the slide area. The report will be used to help inform decisions about when road access and electricity can be restored, and whether houses will be safe enough to re-occupy in the coming months.

Tuesday was the deadline for engineering consultants to submit proposals.

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