Totem Creek permit approval approaches its final stages

Empire editorial

Posted: Sunday, June 02, 2002

After years of roadblocks, detours, studies, meetings, and mounting expenditures, the decision on the Totem Creek Golf Course conditional use permit is expected within the next 60 days. Significant progress has been achieved over the past nine months largely due to a greater willingness on the part of the city Community Development Department and the state Department of Fish and Game to deal with the project's outstanding issues in a more collaborative and constructive manner.

Oscar Graham of the Community Development Department and Bill Hansen of Fish and Game have been leading the effort to bridge the remaining differences in preparation for the final review by the Juneau Planning Commission. Totem Creek Inc., a nonprofit corporation, has had to meet an enormously complex and at times shifting set of standards and requirements in its quest to obtain the conditional use permit. Once the permit is cleared, Totem Creek must then negotiate with the city to purchase the 200-acre tract of land on North Douglas. Finally, financing for the project must be secured before the project can advance to the construction phase.

Juneau saw its first golf course proposal 85 years ago. Since that time a number of golf venues have come and gone, and today Juneau remains the only town with a population of 30,000 or more below the 60th parallel without a decent golf course.

Why has it taken six years to arrive at this point? In fairness, all parties involved have contributed to some degree in confounding progress. In the process, the permit applicant and regulatory agencies involved have learned a great deal about regulatory boundaries and mismatched expectations.

Probably the biggest factor contributing to the gridlock has been the extraordinary length of time this project has been held in limbo. Over the past six years a parade of staff, managers and planning board members have come and gone. It is little wonder that the direction of the permitting process has drifted so far, since few of the current principals have been engaged from start to finish. Institutional knowledge and recollection of agreements and commitments made on the various aspects of the project have proven to be difficult if not impossible to sustain under such circumstances.

Totem Creek's odyssey has brought to light the compelling need to improve the city's CUP process. In fact, City Manager Dave Palmer pledged last year to work toward more simplicity and predictability in the permitting process. New CDD Director Dale Pernula also has acknowledged the need for his department to dispatch permit applications in a more expeditious manner.

Totem Creek's Peter Metcalfe would like to see the city adapt the state Division of Governmental Coordination's procedures for making consistency determinations relative to the Coastal Zone Management Program.

The procedures call for a definitive period for agency comments and requests for more information, a set period for public comment, a set period for responses, and no opportunity for agencies to make late requests for additional information.

As the adage says, time is money. Fish and Game has sunk a great deal of state and federal funds into its own protracted analysis of the proposed site. It is safe to say that the total dollar value of the resources devoted to the project by all parties concerned is well in excess of $2 million. Totem Creek has invested over $600,000 in cash with an equal amount donated in the form of professional and volunteer services.

To date, no scientific evidence has been provided to support the claim by Fish and Game habitat biologists that runoff from the golf course will negatively impact the fishery on registered streams. The course is well designed to mitigate runoff. No other course in Alaska next to or containing salmon habitat has encountered a problem with runoff.

Why has Fish and Game focused so much of its resources on a small tract of land with no proven threat to known salmon habitat, when those federal salmon habitat reclamation funds would do far more good when applied to streams long in need of attention?

Totem Creek has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that their golf course will stand the test of time as a model of environmental integrity. The recreational and community benefits that will accrue from development of this small chunk of land will far outweigh any perceived negative impact. The open space will benefit wildlife and also provide other recreational opportunities in the winter, such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

The golf course also will provide competitive opportunities for generations of young golfers, and provide a fantastic venue for charitable fund-raising.

Bill Hansen of Fish and Game has made a public commitment to effecting a reasonable solution to the issues, which are now centered primarily on stream buffers and buffer treatments.

Hopefully, the tenacity and vision of the golf course boosters will be rewarded with an approval of their permit and they can move on to the next phase of development. The Totem Creek experience will no doubt foster positive change in the city's permitting process and, hopefully, Fish and Game will become more sensitive to the incalculable damage suffered by permit applicants who have had to suffer through interminable delays and subjective surprises in the permitting process.

Don Smith


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