By Carey Restino
After years of debate, discussion and analysis, an ordinance poised to increase protections for salmon stream and lakes in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, and increase restrictions for some property owners along them, will go to a public hearing on June 18.
The proposed streams ordinance, coming before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly next week for public hearing, has been hotly debated for several years now. Many affected residents say the process was flawed because affected landowners were not notified of the potential change when the ordinance was being considered.
A task force was established last year to work through the issues brought up by concerned citizens, resulting in several changes. Some rules were relaxed — the latest ordinance says it’s OK to cut a dead tree on the first 50 feet of your property that abuts the river or lake, for example. And many existing structures will be grandfathered in, with a permit.
While Assemblyman Bill Smith, who worked extensively on the ordinance, and others on the Anadromous Fish Habitat Protection Task Force say they are confident in the ordinance, others see it as another example of overreaching government.
Assemblyman Kelly Wolf has introduced an ordinance also to be considered at the June 18 meeting to repeal the streams ordinance. He has expressed concern about the currently proposed ordinance, in part because of the expansion of the River Center, which will administer the stream regulations if approved. A fiscal note had not been previously attached to the ordinance, but is being brought forward by the mayor’s office.
At the last assembly meeting, Wolf proposed the fish habitat ordinance be postponed until August, but that proposal was rejected by a vote of 7-1. Several assembly members, Smith included, said it was time to move forward with the long-drawn-out ordinance.
Protecting fish habitat the goal
Smith said at the root of the ordinance is the fact that the original ordinance only protected the riverbanks of the Kenai River and the Anchor River, as well as a handful of others. In studying the intent of the bill, the assembly decided it should apply equally to all streams with migrating fish swimming in them.
“We didn’t feel the borough should get in the business of being the decider of the biology of streams,” Smith said.
It was suggested that the borough use the state’s listings for anadromous streams instead. That added more than 2,000 stream miles, though Smith points out that it doesn’t add as many new lots as you would think, given the number of miles being newly included.
The ordinance evolved to include a listing catalog of every stream and lake in the state’s system. That way, each change by the state to stream listings will be reviewed by the borough, Smith said. Landowners would be more easily made aware of potential changes that could impact their activity.
In all, the new ordinance would limit activity for land up to 50 feet from the stream bank. By definition, anadromous streams include the lakes they run through, though the regulations for lakeside properties are different than for delicate riverfront lots.
The main purpose of the ordinance is to curtail activity and development near the shore that could disrupt native vegetation and increase erosion. Other safeguards protect against water pollution and other damaging action on the shoreline.
Many activities, such as mowing a lawn or planting native vegetation, are permitted, however. And taxpayers who are interested in improving their property through stream bank repair or the construction of a walkway would be eligible to get a reduction in their taxes, as well as a four-year reprieve from any taxation on such improvements, Smith said.
“We have a couple of things in place to help people who are interested in making improvements that will be of public benefit,” he said. “If they are of public benefit, then the public should have some responsibility for that cost.”
Despite the argument by those involved with crafting the Anadromous Fish Habitat Protection ordinance that the new regulations are justified, many have testified before the assembly over the past year that they oppose the ordinance from the position that it is an example of overreaching government. Fish habitat protection may be important, but it is up to the individual to take on that effort, they say.
“It may be done with good intentions,” said Chris Story, Homer realtor and opponent of the ordinance. “It may be intended to protect salmon habitat. But to me, it’s never been about the science. It’s about whether they respected the rights of these property owners.”
Chief among Story’s complaints about the ordinance is the fact that the process did not include automatic notification of landowners that changes were being discussed. Now, borough code has been modified to include a direct mail out to all affected landowners.
Story said it is too little too late. The ordinance should be thrown out and the process started over, he says.
“If they had sent out notices to individual property owners, this would be a very different discussion,” he said. “They’ve got to do it in the open light of day.”
Others in the community have expressed similar sentiment. At a past meeting in Anchor Point, the testimony was reportedly unified in opposition to the new restrictions. Elsewhere, landowners were shocked to hear such changes were being considered without notification. Others objected on the grounds that it would impact their property values.
Story said he supports Wolf’s ordinance to repeal the Fish Habitat Protection ordinance, and hopes it passes and the other ordinance is voted down. Then the process can begin properly, he alleges.
“The story is about government respecting the people,” he said. “Our rights as citizens are eroding rapidly. We all care about salmon, but without private property rights, we’re not in America anymore.”
For more information on the Anadromous Streams Fish Habitat Protection Task Force, visit borough.kenai.ak.us/mayor/anadromous-fish-habitat-protection-task-force.
The proposed ordinance 2013-18, can be reviewed in the upcoming borough assembly packet which can be downloaded from the borough’s website. The ordinance starts on page 183.
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