The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is asking the city to halt work on a road to a proposed fisheries research center at Lena Point.
The federal agency canceled a bid process for the project last month after the low bid was higher than expected. NOAA is evaluating whether to reduce the size of a Lena Point center or upgrade the current National Marine Fisheries Service lab at Auke Bay.
"We have a $51 million budget and $63 million project with the bids that came in high, and we have to live within our means," National Marine Fisheries Service spokeswoman Sheela McLean said today. "We would hope the city's contract would allow time to suspend work until we can find out how we're going to fit within the budget we have. We're working on studying and trying to make those decisions, but it will take time."
Work started last month on a 1.2-mile road through the interior of Lena Point to the proposed center. The right of way has been cleared and blasting is scheduled to begin soon, according to Interim City Manager John MacKinnon. Stopping the project now will cost money, he said.
"I'd be very hesitant to, very hesitant," he said of halting work. "They're moving dirt. To suspend work will result in a construction claim, and a construction claim doesn't give us anything. We'd just end up giving money away."
NOAA was scheduled to contribute $1.7 million to the $2.7 million road project under a memorandum of understanding with the city. MacKinnon told the Juneau Assembly on Monday that suspending work could end up costing $805,000, or the balance NOAA owes the city.
As of this morning, the city hadn't been told officially to stop the road project, MacKinnon said. The city was told to move forward with road plans in June after the bids came in higher than expected, then-City Manager Dave Palmer said.
McLean said NMFS officials are looking into what the government's responsibilities to the city are in regard to the road. NOAA could take months to decide whether to pursue a new Lena Point center or upgrade the Auke Bay lab, she said.
The city also is planning to build a 45-lot subdivision at Lena Point, some of which would be reached by the new road. MacKinnon said permits for the project were submitted last week.
The Lena Extended Neighborhood Association, which has followed the road and subdivision projects closely, asked the city earlier to stop work at Lena Point until NOAA determined whether a new research center would be built there. Neighborhood Association construction liaison Kirk Miller said the city should have waited a month before starting road construction.
"What we'd like the city to do is temporarily stop work on the road, hold a meeting with us and work through the various options we have," he said.
The new road was permitted on the assumption it would mitigate traffic for the NOAA center, Miller said. If the city is building a road for the new subdivision, it needs to re-enter a public process and apply for new permits, he said.
NOAA's interest in upgrading the Auke Bay lab should be taken seriously, he said.
"They (the city) should have waited a month," he said. "They didn't need to rush ahead. They wasted a ton of time and money."
The situation puts the city in a "pickle," Assembly member Marc Wheeler said.
"We still hope that NOAA will be built out there at Lena and that's what we have to keep pushing for," he said. "That's what we've been planning. We're feeling a little bit burned by the whole process."
MacKinnon said the city will ask to be involved in NOAA's site discussions and can provide input into rescoping the Lena project.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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