More land in public's hands

Posted: Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A valuable piece of private property on Douglas Island considered for development is one step closer to becoming a city park.

The Juneau Assembly approved a resolution at its regular meeting Monday night that accepts the donation of nearly 36 acres of land in the Hilda Creek area from the Southeast Alaska Land Trust.

SEAL Trust has a purchase-sale agreement on the table with the landowner and intends to buy the property using part of the $6 million that Juneau International Airport is paying in wetlands mitigation for airport projects. Executive Director Diane Mayer said the trust has offered appraised value for the property, adding that the figure is between the nonprofit and the buyer.

SEAL Trust will donate the property to the city if the sale is completed. Mayer said she hopes it will be set in stone by the end of July.

"We'll let the public know when the transaction is complete and people can start enjoying that area," city Lands Manager Heather Marlow said.

The land, located at the halfway point on the west side of Douglas Island, was part of the Tongass National Forest until John F. McDonald homesteaded it in 1923. The land has two salmon spawning streams on it and nearby Hilda Cove is known as a popular recreation spot for kayakers, fisherman and hikers. Last year the property was subdivided into 10 lots that the owner intended to sell for individual residences, accessible only by boats.

The Hilda Creek area is an important piece of property in the community, Mayer said.

"You look at Douglas Island, and Hilda Creek and Peterson Creek are the two richest drainages on the island," she said. "Given that this has this uniquely positioned private ownership in the heart of the flood plains of Hilda Creek, it makes it a pretty good candidate for conservation."

SEAL Trust is also hoping an ordinance approved Monday night that amends the Land Use Code will allow it to use more of the airport's wetland mitigation funds to add acreage to the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge.

Due to isostatic rebound, where the land is slowly rising due to glacial retreat, the seaward property boundaries on land near the refuge has been moving. The landowners are able to go to court to claim land that has essentially risen from the sea to ensure their right of access to water.

SEAL Trust and property owners had approached the city and asked to have some of the accreted lands turned into stand-alone lots for conservation purposes, but the Land Use Code required that individual lots have at least 30 feet of frontage on roads maintained by a government agency. The Assembly approved an ordinance that amends the Land Use Code to allow "conservation lots" around the Mendenhall wetlands refuge that don't require a road.

"We found that there was a bunch of regulation standing in the way that wasn't needed," Marlow said. "So in pretty quick order we were able to craft a solution that allows for the activities and transaction to go forward."

SEAL Trust has been working with three separate landowners with accreted land adjacent to the refuge that Mayer said are interested in selling to the nonprofit, which she says would then ideally be transferred to the state. This is important because it could help maintain a fixed boundary around the refuge and add possibly 60 acres to it, Mayer said.

The first transaction for a parcel of land could take place by mid-August, she said.

The Assembly also approved the first reading of an ordinance that would approve $21.1 million in grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration for the Juneau Airport runway safety area capital improvement project. It is the third grant from the FAA for the $48 million renovation of the airport underway.

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