My turn: City's sewer plan for North Douglas stinks

Posted: Monday, February 26, 2007

Apparently, it's acceptable to have human excrement on North Douglas beaches as long as a California land developer gets what he wants. At least, that's the effect of a move at the last meeting of the city of Juneau Public Works and Facilities Committee.

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North Douglas sewer wasn't on the agenda. Assembly member Merrill Sanford's unannounced motion came at a time in the meeting in which public testimony wouldn't have been allowed, even if people had known to show up. The committee decided earlier to phase the sewer project so the greatest number of unserved homes would get sewer first. They acted in the full light of day with considerable public involvement. When the committee reported it to the full Juneau Assembly, no one objected or even commented.

Now, quietly, we see what looks like a complete 180-degree turn on the committee's action, and a Committee of the Whole will get to second-guess the Public Works and Facilities Committee. Why?

When Sanford led the charge to reverse action, the only evident support was a letter from a California developer who says he wants to "fill the current demand for affordable housing." Without sewer, zoning laws prevent the higher density development he seeks.

But by supplying sewer to undeveloped property first, existing homeowners - many with failed or failing septic systems - will keep waiting. Since available funds are much less than initially thought, three to five years is not unlikely. It could be a lot longer. Some North Douglas residents have been waiting decades for sewer. Seems they get to wait some more.

It's irresponsible to delay fixing a serious public health issue. If the city can't or won't enforce septic system standards, they should at least direct their limited resources to where they will do the most good. If we can extend sewer to four times as many houses, why should we serve mostly vacant land first?

The California developer's letter offers a clue. He claims because the phrase "continuing Juneau's growth" appears first in the project description on a voter information pamphlet explaining the initiative, that means the city of Juneau priority is to expand development. "Specious" is too charitable a word for that sort of woolly thinking.

Ask the voters what they read on the ballot itself and they'll tell you they thought they were voting for sewers, for residents. The old bait-and-switch may be a time-honored con game, but we don't like it in elections.

So why is this happening? Why would elected officials and city staff cling so tightly to this "develop first, fix problems later" approach? Who are our public servants really serving? It sure doesn't seem to be the residents of North Douglas, anyone concerned with clean water or those who want to walk on the beach without strolling through whatever their neighbors had for dinner a couple of days ago.

Within easy walking distance of the Capitol, we're not addressing basic sanitation needs. Why would the Juneau Assembly not do everything possible to fix the problem, and sooner rather than later?

The Committee of the Whole meets at 5 p.m. today at Assembly Chambers. Since it's a "work session," public testimony is not invited.

I'm sorry to say I may have spoken too soon in praising the responsiveness of our local government in a recent letter to the editor. Something stinks here, and it isn't just the beaches of North Douglas.

• Ronald G. Clarke is a resident of Juneau.

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