Coastal districts complain bill weakens local control

Murkowski administration officials say coastal management overly complex, slows development

Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Officials in some coastal areas are fighting a bill they say reduces their power to decide how development occurs in their communities.

But Murkowski administration officials say they are just trying to fix a program that is overly complex, duplicates other regulations and slows development.

The House is set to vote today on the bill revamping the Alaska Coastal Management Program.

The bill would limit the authority of Alaska's 34 local coastal districts, generally not allowing them to regulate environmental impacts that are covered by state and federal laws.

Jack Phelps, the governor's special assistant for natural resources, said that's intended to fix a big problem with the existing program.

He said local coastal district policies sometimes impose more stringent standards than the state does, or impose the same standard but interpret it differently.

"It's resulted in uncertainty for project applicants, and we just feel that's unfair," Phelps said. "One of our goals was to make it so the applicant could look at the standards and know exactly what he has to do to get a project permitted."

Opponents say the bill shifts too much power from communities to the state. Representatives of 12 coastal districts, including Anchorage, Juneau and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, submitted a letter to legislators objecting to the bill.

"This legislation applies a 'one-size-fits-all' approach to resource planning and permitting decisions in the coastal zone of Alaska," the letter said.

John Oscar works with Cenaliulriit Coastal Resource Service Area, which encompasses 44 Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages. He fears the bill will allow development without considering local knowledge, and the result could harm fish and game resources people depend on for subsistence.

"We are not against development. We are not greenies or conservationists," Oscar said. "We favor well-thought-out, well-balanced development that favors and respects local control."

Phelps said the bill does allow local policies to cross into areas regulated by the state or federal government if the policies deal with local concerns "demonstrated as sensitive to development," not adequately addressed by state or federal law and of unique concern to the local area "as demonstrated by local usage or scientific evidence."

Opponents say that language leaves little power to local districts.

"This is really just a step toward making it almost impossible for a local district to use in any meaningful manner," said Juneau Democratic Rep. Beth Kerttula.

The bill would require the local districts to rewrite their plans to reflect the new approach.

Under current law, local plans are approved by the Alaska Coastal Policy Council made up of state agency commissioners and elected representatives from the coastal districts.

The bill would eliminate the policy council and put the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources in charge of approving the local plans.

Kerttula, who agrees the program does not work well now, tried Tuesday to send the issue to a work group for two years to come up with a program all parties could agree on.

Republican Reps. Dan Ogg of Kodiak and Paul Seaton of Homer joined minority Democrats in voting for that amendment, which failed.

House Democrats also tried unsuccessfully Tuesday to get House Bill 191 sent back to a committee for another hearing, so coastal program representatives in town for a conference could testify on the bill.

Republican majority leaders countered that the bill had been through three committees and would get further hearings in the Senate if it passes the House. The bill is expected to pass the House today.

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