Empire Editorial: Fireweed vote trades closure for questions

An Assembly meeting earlier this month was supposed to provide closure on the fate of Juneau’s “Field of Fireweed.” Why, then, are so many questions lingering?

 

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly went behind closed doors Sept. 5 to decide Bicknell’s zoning appeal. The company’s owner wanted to rezone the 82-acre field for industrial and light commercial use, in addition to its current rural reserve status.

Assembly members were permitted to discuss the appeal during executive session since it was acting as a judicial body. Although permitted, shutting out the public was a mistake, especially considering the 5-4 vote immediately following the closed door session. The vote upheld the CBJ Planning Commission’s denial of Bicknell’s appeal. Why did Assembly members vote the way they did? That’s the question that most needs answering.

No other zoning issue in the capital city in recent years has been as emotionally charged as the field of fireweed debate. And that’s the problem with this situation – it’s been driven by emotion more than reason. Those who enjoy the aesthetic qualities of the fireweed have applied consistent pressure on city officials to deny the rezone since it was first heard by the Planning Commission nearly two years ago. It’s been described as “iconic” and “welcoming” by those who would see it forever remain a field of fireweed.

If no fireweed were present, would anyone have cared what Bicknell wanted to do with the land, which borders an airport landing strip and Juneau’s only major highway? One thing is for sure: those protesting the rezone wouldn’t have showed up to public meetings with large fireweed photos pinned to their shirts.

By discussing the issue in private, residents don’t know if the five who voted against allowing the appeal did so because they felt pressured by fireweed enthusiasts or other, more specific reasons. Perhaps a rezone to industrial doesn’t mesh with Juneau’s waterfront development plan, or maybe added traffic congestion from an additional turn off on Egan Drive was a deal breaker. We just don’t know why Assembly members voted the way they did, but we should. Part of being a public official is explaining your reasoning, especially if you hope to attract others to your side.

Visually pleasing or not, private residents don’t have a right to tell Bicknell how to maintain its land or what to grow on it. That’s like preventing your neighbor from turning a flower box into a vegetable garden, or deciding what color they can paint their house. It’s nice if residents have grown to appreciate Bicknell’s fireweed, but that doesn’t give them partial ownership of it. It’s property, not a public park.

There’s many reasons why the rezone could have been denied, but if the Assembly continues to work behind the scenes when deciding such disputes, it only serves to leave the rest of us in the dark. With an issue as emotional as the field of fireweed, residents deserve to know how Assembly members came to a particular conclusion so they can weigh the merit of that argument. In other words, if they voted in favor of the Planning Commission because they think fireweed is pretty, their record should reflect as much.

It’s one thing to not agree with an elected body’s vote; it’s another to be left clueless as to why.

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