The city of Skagway is "up in arms" and ready to "go down with guns blazing" over talk of annexation by the Haines Borough.
Alaska's oldest incorporated city, Skagway, wants to become the state's newest organized borough to avoid being absorbed by its neighbor to the south.
Skagway, incorporated on June 28, 1900 - the day before the city of Juneau did so - appears willing to dissolve its 100-year-old government to preserve its autonomy.
City leaders have been considering the change for years, but renewed their efforts this week after a Haines Borough official asked about possible annexation of Skagway, Gustavus and Glacier Bay.
"I was just requesting information, not pushing a measure," assemblyman Terry Pardee said. "I was really surprised by the explosive reaction."
Skagway City Manager Bob Ward attended Tuesday's borough meeting in Haines after being tipped off that the issue, although not on the agenda, would be raised.
"This is not the sort of thing that would've gone unnoticed," Ward said. "It has Skagway up in arms and a lot of people in Haines concerned about potentially souring our relationship."
The two towns have cooperated in the past, particularly on tourism and transportation issues. Skagway Mayor John Mielke and Haines Borough Mayor Jerry Lapp stood together last year on the steps of the Capitol to support fast ferries and oppose a road from Juneau.
Mielke was out of town and unavailable for comment.
"I've talked with Mayor Mielke and he's incensed that Mayor Lapp would not contact him about this ahead of time," Ward said.
Lapp was also out of town during this week's borough meeting but returned to Haines on Thursday.
"There was nothing to it, just one assemblyman inquiring about the process for annexing," Lapp said. "He just asked permission to have our land manager check on that. There was no action and I don't plan to pursue it further."
Haines acting city mayor Chip Lende said he's been on the telephone trying to "mend fences" with his colleagues across the bay. He also wrote a letter to the city of Skagway.
"I told them told them this whole thing caught everybody off-guard," Lende said. "Haines is trying to work closely with Skagway on economic development and we don't want to jeopardize that relationship."
Pardee insists he was only looking into something - the consolidation of communities in the upper Lynn Canal - supported by Alaska constitutional mandate and legislative edict.
Dan Bockhorst, who works for the state Local Boundary Commission, said the law presumes boroughs will encompass multiple communities and a population of at least 1,000 people.
"City governments are community-based, while borough governments are region-based," he said.
There are 16 organized boroughs in the state. Everything else, from the cities of Bethel and Dillingham to Skagway and Gustavus, lies within what's known as the unorganized borough.
The average organized borough in Alaska includes about 17,600 square miles while the typical incorporated city is about 27 square miles. The city of Skagway encompasses 443 square miles; the borough of Haines about 2,120 square miles.
Skagway, with a year-round population of 825, points to the Yakutat Borough as precedent for its cause. Bockhorst recommended against that incorporation.
Filing a petition to form a borough could be risky for Skagway.
"If it fails, it could open the door to incorporation into the borough of Haines," Ward said. "It could happen whether we did it or not, so we may as well go down with guns blazing."
Mike Sica can be reached at email@example.com.
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