Four years and counting

Developers are still trying to win the city's approval for a golf course on Douglas

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2001

A four-year effort to get the city's permission to build an 18-hole golf course in a forest within the Peterson Creek watershed may be nearing its final review.

A whole generation has come of age since local golfers such as Chip Parr first started pushing for a golf course in West Douglas the early 1980s.

Two years ago the course's architect, William Robinson of Florence, Ore., attended a 16th-birthday party for Parr's twin daughters, whom he remembers seeing in a playpen when he visited Juneau to lay out an early version of the course.

"He was here before they were born," corrected Parr.

The local nonprofit group developing the course, Totem Creek Inc., said last week that it has redesigned the course and completed further studies to meet public concerns raised to date.

It will submit those plans soon to the city Community Development Department and ask for another public hearing before the Juneau Planning Commission. Totem Creek applied for a conditional use permit in September 1997.

Douglas Belknap of Juneau said he has golfed "all my life," and supports an 18-hole course in West Douglas. "There's a sizable number of people in this town that would just love to see a golf course," he said.

The Juneau Golf Club has about 300 members, and Totem Creek estimates that 3,000 residents are golfers.

A lot of Juneau residents travel out of town to play golf, Belknap said. He takes golf vacations in places like Arizona, plays in amateur tournaments in Anchorage and sometimes flies to Gustavus for a round.

The West Douglas course "would mean an opportunity to play a big course, an opportunity to hit some of the drivers, which we can't do here," he said at the nine-hole, par-three Mendenhall Golf Course.

The conditional use permit is a necessary step before Totem Creek can get financing, developers said, because they need to know what the project will cost. They said they have spent $500,000 so far from pull-tab receipts from the Juneau Golf Club.

"The problem is we're battling on two fronts," said Totem Creek President John Barnett. "On one front we keep getting changing conditions. ... And the clock has never started as far as when does it end."

In contrast, state and federal reviews have timelines for taking public comment and making a decision, he said.

"The other battle is the media and to a certain extent city staff keep allowing a question to be raised of whether it should be built. We're responding to an RFP (request for proposals) to build it," he said.

Not everyone thinks it should be a closed question.

Julie Hammonds, a certified planner, opposes the golf course partly because of environmental concerns and partly because she thinks the city has not looked comprehensively at the region to decide what lands should be protected.

The city has designated West Douglas for future growth, and a joint city and Goldbelt conceptual plan in 1997 recommended lands for development and preservation. Goldbelt, the for-profit Native corporation for Juneau, owns land in West Douglas. But that study was never adopted into the city's Comprehensive Plan, Hammonds said.

"I would like to see it developed right," she said. "This process and the process of developing it right have been two different things. Planning should not be done on a project-by-project basis. Planning should be on a community-wide basis, and then drill down to the smaller things until you get to project by project."

 

Totem Creek thinks those kinds of policy questions were resolved in the early 1990s when the Juneau Assembly reclassified the land for a golf course and requested proposals to develop one.

Totem Creek expected the city to cooperate with it to get through the permit process. The Community Development Department's mission statement said it responds to customers with friendly and cost-efficient service, and is viewed more as a facilitator than a regulator.

Instead, the developers said the city staff has been uncommunicative, disorganized and seemingly antagonistic. The staff lost maps repeatedly, didn't call them about concerns and left out positive comments from a packet of public comments, Barnett said.

This spring, instead of talking to the developers about how they would deal with potential flooding in alluvial fans, the city commissioned a consultant's report based on aerial photographs rather than ground studies, Barnett said.

Alluvial fans are places where mountain streams have dumped gravel as the land flattens out and streams slow down. Some citizens have raised the question of whether the course could be eroded by floods.

The report "seemed like a gratuitous slap in the face," especially since the city already has said the land is suitable for a golf course, said Totem Creek Vice President Tom Koester.

But a decision on the golf course's permit also has been delayed by being part of a larger question. The city's request for proposals said the golf course would be one piece of a larger project to develop West Douglas land owned by the city and Goldbelt.

Nearly two years were lost from the review process, from late 1997 into 1999, while the city considered what route the North Douglas Highway should take if it was extended. The federal government had offered $2.6 million in planning funds.

Eventually, the city decided the permitting process for the golf course should continue, and a future road would work around it. The city has since focused its lobbying efforts on a second crossing of Gastineau Channel.

"For almost two years we were trying to get on the front burner and we were being pushed aside because they had all these millions to do a road," Barnett said.

Since late 1999 the city and Totem Creek have wrangled over what environmental studies and management plans should be required before the conditional use permit is voted on.

Over time, the city has raised the size of the buffers of vegetation it wants around fish streams. City planners said in November 2000 that a submitted conceptual pest management plan was sufficient, but in March 2001 they asked for a plan that would specify the anticipated pests and how Totem Creek would deal with them.

Randy Bayliss, who was an environmental consultant to the project, said asking for information piece by piece over time is one way to kill a project as the developers run out of patience and money.

"Most of these permit battles are lost on attrition. They just give up and go away. They never are told no. And that's really dishonest," he said.

Totem Creek also has said it feels the state Department of Fish and Game is trying to undermine a state approval after the fact and derail the project by pressing the city to ask for more detailed studies.

But officials in the Habitat Division of Fish and Game said the city asked for their comments on material Totem Creek had submitted and whether it met conditions set in the state's determination that the project was consistent with the state coastal management program.

"It seemed to me that this was a reasonable checkpoint at which these things could be reviewed. The city had an interest in knowing whether these things were complete," said assistant area habitat biologist Catherine Pohl.

 

Some citizens say the drawn-out process has helped bring out important environmental issues, such as buffers around fish streams and around stands of tall trees. Ellen Ferguson, acting president of the recently formed North Douglas Neighborhood Association, applauded city staff for continuing to ask questions.

The association isn't for or against the course, she said. But it "supports the city's efforts to gather all the necessary information before this project begins," Ferguson said.

To Totem Creek, the issue is partly timing.

Totem Creek officials said they expected to submit detailed environmental studies before they received grading or building permits or began to operate, which were the conditions for all but one of the studies required by the state's coastal consistency determination.

Getting a conditional use permit first would let them get the funds to do the detailed studies, Barnett said.

"Much of the antagonism on our part was we felt this was putting the cart before the horse," said Totem Creek's Koester, an attorney who worked for 15 years in the state Department of Law's environmental section.

Sometimes it becomes a chicken and egg situation, said city attorney John Corso. A developer needs a permit before it can get funding. But it needs money to do the studies to get a permit that will stand up in court.

Courts have ruled that agencies shouldn't grant permits without collecting all of the available information first. The side effect is it puts developers to a lot of trouble and expense, Corso said.

The studies the city has asked for are pretty standard for golf courses, said Oscar Graham, the acting director of the Community Development Department. He has worked on permits for golf courses as a county planner in western Washington and as a private consultant.

"I think it's real important that we have adequate information on which to address the permit - either approve it or deny it or approve it with conditions - and I don't know how to get that without a fair degree of site-specific analysis," Graham said.

The developer hasn't built a golf course before, and it's being reviewed by a city agency that hasn't looked at such a proposal before.

"Here in Southeast Alaska, it's a new issue from both sides of the counter," he said. "So I think the expectations have been clouded and complicated a bit by those factors."

It took two years for an applicant for a course near wetlands and two salmon streams in King County, Wash., to get permits, said Fred White with the county Department of Development and Environmental Services.

King County required the developer to pay for environmental experts hired by the county and who reported to the county. The developer had to submit a handbook on how the course would be built and operated, White said. "We looked at all of that through one review process and in great detail."

The West Douglas golf course has been approved already by other agencies, ones that would seem to have more scientific expertise than the city Community Development Department has. But those reviews weren't entirely smooth sailing, either, even if they were quicker.

Two federal agencies objected to the Corps of Engineers permit to fill 1.4 acres of wetlands, saying they wanted the Corps to do an environmental impact statement, a more detailed review than the environmental assessment the Corps did.

The National Marine Fisheries Service objected partly because it believed that things that enhance the course's economic viability, such as housing, should be included in the agency's environmental review.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the area was critical winter habitat for deer, but the agency's main concern was aquatic.

It described Peterson Creek as an extensive high-quality habitat for coho, chum and pink salmon, cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char. It told the Corps that use of pesticides on the course's turfgrass has a high potential to degrade downstream water quality in Peterson Creek and its tributaries.

But the Corps said it was limited to looking at the impacts on 1.4 acres of wetlands and it would be speculative to assess the impacts of hypothetical development.

The Corps said Totem Creek had avoided wetlands as much as it could have. It credited the developers with planning to log trees in the winter, when there would be less disturbance to the ground.

It said the developers were treating all tributaries of Peterson Creek as if they were fish habitat and would use appropriate structures to cross streams. The streams would be protected by 66-foot buffers of vegetation, the Corps said.

Even as far back as 1997, when Totem Creek sought the state's determination that the course was consistent with the coastal management program, the developers were arguing with Fish and Game over the information they should provide.

In seeking detailed studies, city planners may only be trying to meet the requirements of a 1996 Juneau Assembly resolution that authorizes the city manager to negotiate a land deal with Totem Creek.

The resolution required the city to work with Totem Creek to arrive at a golf course layout, environmental design and environmental management program that would be at least as stringent as that required by the Audubon Society, taking into account the Southeast environment.

 

The reference apparently was to Audubon International, an organization that sprang from the New York Audubon Society but isn't affiliated with the National Audubon Society. It promotes sustainable resource management.

Audubon International has two programs for golf courses. The Signature program helps developers design courses and develop plans to manage courses. The Sanctuary program is for existing courses. Totem Creek offered to join the Sanctuary program, but city planners said it should either join the Signature program or match its standards.

Parr, who guided Totem Creek in its early days but who hasn't been involved for several years, said he first broached the Audubon standard with the city. Parr wanted Totem Creek to join the Signature program to satisfy critics that the course was being overseen "by a legitimate, experienced organization," and as a marketing tool, he said.

The Signature program requires applicants to have baseline water quality monitoring studies, an inventory of plant and animal life on site, and a management plan for all of the pests that could occur in the area, as well as a natural resource management plan as an operations manual for the property, said program director Nancy Richardson in an interview from Henderson, Ky.

"You don't have to reinvent the wheel," Parr said. "They would have experience with other developments that would have translated into expertise for us."

Parr hopes to play golf in West Douglas some day. Golf to him means fraternity and sunshine.

"Golf courses are maintained gardens. It's quiet, peaceful, polite, cordial, frustrating, paradoxical," he said of the sport. "If you try to cream the ball, it topples and dribbles. But if you take an easy, comfortable swing, it will fly forever."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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