City panel OKs eagle nest buffer variance

Building road around nests could cost millions more

Posted: Wednesday, July 12, 2006

After heated discussion Tuesday night, the Juneau Planning Commission approved a variance to build the Juneau access highway near three eagle nests.

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But the commission did not take a final vote on whether the road meets the city's land use code and comprehensive plan by the Empire's press time.

The commission continued debate on the proposed construction of a road north of Juneau at its regular meeting Tuesday night. A decision on whether the controversial project is consistent with the city's land use code and comprehensive plan had been postponed at two prior meetings.

Tuesday night's debate largely focused on three eagle nests near the road. The state requires a 330-foot buffer zone between eagle nests and construction projects. The Alaska Department of Transportation requested a variance to be able to build the road within the buffer.

Mal Menzies, Southeast regional director for DOT, said avoiding the buffer would increase road construction costs substantially because it would require building tunnels to go around the eagle nests. He said building tunnels around the nests would range from $19.5 million to $34.5 million.

Dale Pernulla, community development director for the city, said the road could technically be built without the variance, but not at that cost.

"It's feasible to avoid those nests. It's not economically feasible," he said.

Menzies said there are other projects where variances have been granted to build within the 330-foot buffer zone.

The state is proposing to extend Glacier Highway almost 60 miles from Echo Cove to a shuttle terminal at the Katzehin River on the east side of Lynn Canal. The commission has not been looking at the entire scope of the project, but rather section slightly longer than 20 miles running through land owned by the city.

Marshall Kendziorek, the only commissioner to oppose the variance, said the commission should not have to consider the cost of the project but rather the city's code.

"Cost is frankly not our problem," he said. "There are feasible alternatives in terms of construction and design."

The city Community Development Department has recommended that the Planning Commission approve the extension of the road, finding the plan meets the intent of the city's strategy for the area.

There are 19 conditions that the approval is subject to, including lessening potential damage to wildlife habitats, fish streams and wetlands, and considering risks of seasonal avalanches.

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