The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly pushed an ordinance that would have repealed protection for eagle nests back to the Planning Commission Monday night.
The proposed ordinance would relax development conditions considerably on development near eagle nests. Part of the concern the Community Development Department and Planning Commission has is they don’t have any experts on eagles, nor do they have the luxury of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service giving recommendations anymore.
While the issue came through the Planning Commission just days ago, it did not send along the ordinance change with its blessing. In fact, for many different reasons, it unanimously recommended denial of the ordinance that would remove restrictions on development near eagle nests.
The Assembly listened to strong public testimony against the ordinance, coupled with the Planning Commission’s varied disapproval of the sweeping change. The Assembly also apparently received at least 15 emails from the public on the issue.
The Commission’s Title 49 Committee will review the ordinance and develop recommendations. It will go back through the Planning Commission thereafter. Commission Chairman Michael Satre said he would hope to have the proposal back to the Assembly by this summer — or at least by the end of the year.
Several citizens spoke before the Assembly Monday night, voicing strong opposition to the repeal of the protections.
Jeff Sauer, president of Juneau’s Audubon Society, spoke against a complete repeal of protections of eagles. He didn’t understand what the rush was about.
The proposed change to the ordinance came after the Commission’s latest approval of a permit for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities.
Sauer said there hadn’t been a Title 49 review of the proposal, which the ordinance falls under. The city also is in the process of refreshing its Comprehensive Plan, which also includes the language.
“This is a very flawed process,” Sauer said. “What is the emergency here?”
Sauer said the Society strongly objects to a total repeal of the ordinance because in most cases, this is the only line of defense bald eagles have for development. Sauer said the process developers go through with the FWS is optional and costs $500 per application. He suggested if the ordinance is indeed too restrictive, to go through a better process of making it better, but still leaving protection for the eagles.
Mary Lou King also spoke against it, saying she voted for statehood and one reason she did was because Alaskans could have more control over things that happen around Juneau.
“I think we should deal with giving eagles some protection,” she said. “The other thing I wanted to say, eagles can learn to deal with human beings’ usual noises.”
Tina Brown, representing herself and the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said bald eagles should continue to have the protection the city has afforded them.
“I want to stress that eliminating this ordinance does not make good biological sense,” she said. “Many people don’t realize how important bald eagles are.”
Brown gave extensive testimony on why it’s important to have rules in place when development occurs around the nests. She cited a book that found of nesting eagle parents, when the birds failed to raise an eaglet, 95 percent failed during the incubation period — so laws that limit the days that construction can occur are important because of that sensitivity.
Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl asked guided questions of the Community Development Department Staff — asking if they had biologists on staff for wetlands, salmon stream variances and other ordinances that could be sensitive to wildlife. It doesn’t, but relies on the Wetlands Review Board and agency experts. Kiehl said they also don’t have a biologist for eagle nest issues, but the ordinance is still carried through.
“I am also particularly glad the bald eagle is no longer endangered,” he said. “My understanding the bald eagle in Alaska was never endangered. I’m interested that a change from endangered to not endangered is prompting a change in the ordinance?”
Kiehl suggested the law is on the books not as a matter of endangerment to the animal, but more as a matter of community value.
Satre and Community Development Director Dale Pernula were asked about data on permits. Pernula said since 1995 — when the city began collecting data electronically — there were 37 requests for variances on the eagle nest permits. One didn’t move, three withdrew and 33 were approved.
Satre explained the Commission was divided on the subject because some wanted no change, others wanted to follow the comprehensive plan, and others wanted to approve as-is — with variations to some degree.
“What we put in (the Comprehensive) Plan, was to allow balanced development and it might contain some animals of value, we need to do something to move that forward,” Satre said. “If the city decides to not move it forward, we stand ready to have it remanded back to us.”
Assembly Member Randy Wanamaker started Assembly action with a motion to approve the repeal as is.
“Change is difficult,” he said. “The federal agency that has the primary responsibility for endangered species act has determined these protections aren’t necessary anymore. ... They still have oversights. I’m not worried about the eagle being endangered with lack of participation in this 330-foot zone. Alaska is a big state and we’ve got eagles almost everywhere.”
The other Assembly members who voiced opinions on the subject wanted to see it go back to committee for development, and Wanamaker agreed with urging to the committee their recommendation align with federal regulations.
• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.