Unwelcome tourism changes sought

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2000

Failure to address problems connected with growth of the cruise ship industry resulted in adoption of a passenger fee initiative and election of a new Assembly member during October's CBJ election. Those of us who believe the cruise industry and its noisy associate, the flightseeing industry, need to be regulated by the CBJ were hopeful that changes would be made.

Although the Assembly's makeup changed, its ability to deal in a meaningful way with tourism issues has been sidetracked by clever maneuvering by Assembly members and Juneau business people who support the industry. For example, a plan to deal with aircraft noise has been manipulated into a plan that could double the number of landing sites for helicopters in the Borough and allow the industry to expand even further. In addition to increasing heliport sites, the CBJ will pay for construction of the sites if the plan is adopted.

During a meeting held in Douglas in August (the Harbor Board/Era Aviation meeting), and the Tourism Advisory Committee meetings held at Centennial Hall in September and October, borough residents exhausted by a constant barrage of noise from helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft voiced their concerns. At the Douglas meeting over 80 residents made it very clear that they strongly oppose construction of a heliport site across from Douglas. At the Centennial Hall meetings solutions were sought and some residents suggested investigation of heliport sites that would move the noise problem away from residential areas. While new heliport sites were suggested, residents also made it clear they did not want to shift their problem to another resident's neighborhood.

Like many members of the public who attended TAC meetings in September and October, I thought the heliport idea was worth investigating. I began thinking differently when, after my appointment to the TAC in November, I heard industry representatives state on more than one occasion that they will move only 50 percent of their operations to the new heliport locations. The other half of their operations will remain where they are now. The industry has also stated publicly that they favor satellite heliports so that they can ``grow'' their industry.

By December, as if the public concern over location of a heliport across from Douglas didn't exist, Sheep Creek portal (just past 3 mile on Thane Road), the little rock dump and the big rock dump locations emerged as sites preferred in rank two, three and four by the industry, with Eaglecrest listed as number five. The airport ranks number one, but discussions have not focused on moving more helicopters to that site, possibly because the plan to extend the runway is another contentious community issue.

By February, with the cruise season a distant memory, Tom Garrett's Policy and Planning Committee adopted almost word for word, the flightseeing operator's recommendations regarding heliports. At the PPC's most recent meeting, tourism coordinator Caryl McConkie stated she is working on a request for proposals (RFP) to be out in mid-March to begin the search for heliport sites. There are several phases to be covered by the RFP including gathering information on various locations, environmental assessment (only necessary for a permanent site, not a test site), and testing for noise levels. McConkie also said, ``we need to consider the growth of the industry'' in determining permanent heliport sites.

Will the noise from Sheep Creek portal impact Douglas? We will find out this summer if that site emerges as the preferred location. Tests will begin in late summer, according to an action plan as laid out in a Feb. 14 planning memo to the PPC signed by the city attorney, deputy city manager, community development director and tourism coordinator.

Who will pay for building the site(s)? The Dec. 7 ``Juneau Flightseeing Operators Results and Action Plan,'' under a section entitled ``short-to mid-term actions,'' calls for the City and Borough of Juneau to ``consider dedicating funds for selected sites'' not later than Oct. 1, 2000, and if approved, the ``CBJ contract design and construction and any needed NEPA work for selected sites'' not later than Jan. 1, 2001.

In the same memo, under mid-to-long term actions, the operators recommend ``enactment of a tax code that provides incentive for conversion of at least the commercial fleet to quiet technology [no later than] Feb. 1, 2000'' and recommend ``the establishment of a revolving loan fund to help finance conversion of at least the commercial fleet to quiet technology [no later than] May 1, 2000.''

The Feb. 14 CBJ memo signed by Corso, Pearce, Easterwood and McConkie states (under immediate action): ``Consider providing incentives (includes removing property tax disincentives) such as sales tax exemptions, zero-rent leases, and a low-cost source of capital to encourage adherence to Assembly policy, relocation of current operations, or adoption of quiet technology when it becomes available. - May 2000.''

On Feb. 21, PPC Chair Garrett scheduled a public forum to be held jointly with the TAC to review the annual rewrite of local tour operator's voluntary compliance measures. Since very little new language has been added, the meeting would not have been considered controversial. I asked Mr. Garrett if he would consider delaying the joint meeting in order to add the heliport issue - why have two meetings? Garrett refused to delay the meeting, stating he will hold a separate meeting on heliport issues.

By the end of this week, when the committee's agenda was published it included not only a public comment period for voluntary compliance measures, but a public comment period on ``Assembly short- and medium-range tasks.'' What might that be? The committee packet includes voluntary compliance measures and the Feb. 14 memo by Corso and company that sets the stage for expansion of heliports. I can only conclude that Mr. Garrett wants to hear public comment on tasks that include issuance of the RFP to expand heliports.

The public must let Mr. Garrett and other members of the Assembly know what they think of this type of policy and planning. Monday evening's public hearing is scheduled to be held at Centennial Hall, from 7-9 p.m.

Kim Metcalfe-Helmar is a member of the Tourism Advisory Committee. The opinion expressed here is her own, not that of the TAC.

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