City rezones scenic ‘field of fireweed’ to industrial area

Once an important bird area, the land could now house a temporary motocross park

In the eyes of one City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member, the CBJ Assembly grew a spine Monday night. In the eyes of one member of the public present, the Assembly set itself up to be vilified.

 

The Assembly voted, by a 7-2 margin, to approve an ordinance rezoning a 23-acre portion of an 83-acre lot surrounding Honsinger Pond from a “rural reserve” designation to an “industrial” designation. The property, owned by Spike Bicknell’s company Bicknell, Inc., includes the “Field of Fireweed,” a natural attraction located just off Egan Drive near the Juneau International Airport.


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Assembly member Debbie White — also a local real estate broker — spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying that the Assembly gives in too often to emotional public comment instead of looking at facts. She pointed out that Bicknell has dutifully paid high taxes on the property.

“It’s about time that this Assembly have a backbone and allow a private property owner to develop their property and not give in to, I’m not even going to use the words,” White said. “He’s put over $100,000 into our coffers just in property tax and we telling him, ‘No, he can’t do this.’”

The Assembly made that statement loud and clear, with every member except Loren Jones and Jesse Kiehl voting in favor of the ordinance. Kiehl admitted he was torn on the issue, as did Maria Gladziszewski, who ended up voting in favor because of how difficult it is to find usable industrial land in Juneau.

About 30 members of the public showed up at the meeting, with seven of them sharing their thoughts on the rezone. Five were against the rezone and two were in favor. One opponent of the ordinance, Sue Ann Randall, touted her appearance as “a cautionary tale.”

Randall spoke about a cell tower on Spuhn Island — she wore a homemade hat that illustrated the tower on the island — that has bothered North Douglas residents over the years. She said that as a result of the bright, blinking light on the tower, she has to keep her shades drawn most of the time and can’t enjoy her view any longer. In 2014, the Assembly voted not to pass an ordinance to regulate the height, appearance and location of cell towers in the city, and Randall expressed how disappointing that decision was.

She used that example to warn that sometimes a plan looks better on paper than it does in actuality, and said this rezone could serve as another example.

“This cell tower is their legacy,” Randall said of the Assembly members who approved it. “Sometimes there are a lot of expletives that follow the mention of their names. That might be your legacy if you pass and change this zoning.”

The “Field of Fireweed” has been a popular destination not only for photographers, sightseers and local families looking for a scenic photograph, but also has been labeled as an “important bird area” by the Audubon Society (a bird preservation organization). The Mendenhall Wetlands complex, which includes the Honsinger Pond area, is an important stopover point for migratory birds.

The fireweed was bulldozed in May of last year.

CBJ’s Land Code defines “rural reserve” as land primarily donated to the conservation of natural resources, while defining “industrial” zone as land that accommodates “manufacturing, processing, repairing and assembling goods.” If Bicknell wants to build something on that land, however, he’ll still need to jump through some hoops with obtaining conditional use permits and complying with the regulations of the nearby airport.

Bicknell has owned the property since 2011 and tried to rezone the area in 2012 and 2013. Both of those applications looked to rezone more than 23 acres and this year’s application allows for more of the property to remain in “rural reserve.” Bicknell was in attendance at the meeting but did not speak.

Some in attendance spent time talking — either for or against — the fact that Bicknell has applied to put a motocross park on that area. Bicknell said at a meeting of the Wetlands Review Board in October that a motocross park there would merely be a placeholder for “approximately three years until the property is developed for other purposes.”

One of the two members of the public to testify in favor of the rezone was businessman Frank Bergstrom, who is involved with numerous local movements from the reworking of the city’s mining ordinance to the pro-road First Things First Alaska Foundation. Bergstrom hopes that whatever Bicknell does with the property ends up bringing economic benefits to Juneau.

“I think that would be a wonderful thing to do to this town,” Bergstrom said, “and I think that it’s that kind of economic development that goes with that zoning that will allow job creation and economic activity that this town sorely needs.”


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com or 523-2271


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