A proposal to build a new seaplane base in Sitka seemed to be gathering steam before the pandemic. But some fresh community opposition last year, and a significantly higher cost estimate this year, are proving to be major setbacks.
The existing seaplane base is more than 50 years old. It was damaged by a storm in 2016 and has other problems, according to the city’s public works director Michael Harmon.
“I think you’re aware it’s at the end of its functional life,” Harmon said. “We’ve done some emergency repairs to it, to keep it afloat. Even those repairs will soon be coming to the end of their design life.”
Harmon said the existing seaplane base’s location isn’t ideal for an expansion that would meet Sitka’s future needs. In 2019, the assembly scored around $800,000 in federal grant funding to study the environmental impact of constructing a new seaplane base at the north end of Japonski Island, on uplands adjacent to Mt. Edgecumbe High School.
Harmon said the Department of Education’s commitment to selling that property to the city kicked the project back into high gear last year.
“When we made it a high legislative priority and lobbied the state to participate in selling the uplands, that allowed the project to get off dead center, so to speak, over all the years,” Harmon said, “And really elevated into a moving forward project with the federal funding.”
In 2021, the FAA’s study found that developing the base would have ‘no significant [environmental] impact’ to the area. So the assembly adopted a resolution to support it. At the time, the project was estimated to cost around $15 million, with the plan to fund most of it with federal grants, including the land purchase.
“Really solidifying the location and to move forward into the design phase of the project, which, that was a large commitment on the FAA funding side,” Harmon said. “Once you do that, you’re committing to build some sort of project or you’re at risk of needing to pay back any funds that we’ve spent in those phases.”
But the city was seeing some community pushback around the proposed location. In September of 2021, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska sent a letter to the state and the FAA citing concerns about the location and impacts on marine life, like spawning herring, as well as on patients at the nearby Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center.
And supporters and staff from Raven’s Way, a residential substance treatment program for teens, spoke against the proposed location at assembly and school board meetings.
“An increase in seaplane noise, foot and vehicle traffic related to seaplane operations is expected,” said Raven’s Way director Annette Becker, addressing the assembly last September. “My concerns include significant interruptions in academic instruction and psychotherapy services.”
Because of the feedback, Harmon said that the FAA is circling back to its initial review and may require additional mitigations around the project. He said that pushes the city’s timeline back by about a year, with construction finishing in 2025.
And now the budget stands at around $34 million, more than double what public works projected last year. Harmon said that’s due to the increased scope of the project, more accurate funding estimates as well as historic national inflation levels. He estimated that the city would only have to contribute around $2 million in matching funds, but also said city staff would work on a scaled-back design to present to the assembly at a future meeting.
Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz did not necessarily see the increased costs as a deal-breaker.
“$34 million is quite different than $15 million,” he said. “However, with such a small match, I think a business case can be made on that side as well. It’ll be an interesting discussion for sure.”
While waiting for the FAA to conclude its environmental re-assessment, Harmon said the city can take its own next steps: securing the land. They negotiated the purchase price with the state last year, just shy of $800,000. But if the city doesn’t acquire the land before the end of the year, the Department of Education can renegotiate the purchase price.