The Juneau Assembly sitting as the committee of the whole (COW), adopted a letter last week asking the U.S. Forest Service to allow over 19,000 helicopter landings on the Juneau Icefield during the next two years. In years 2004-06, the letter asks that landings be allowed to increase by 5 percent a year. Attempts to amend the letter by Assembly members Marc Wheeler and Frankie Pillifant to allow increases only if noise mitigation measures such as satellite heliports are in place (Wheeler), and calling for mitigation measures by a specific time (Pillifant), failed. Assembly member Pillifant questioned the wisdom of making policy at the committee level. Her concerns fell on deaf ears.
The action taken by the COW is significant because the committee rarely makes binding policy decisions. The COW is an Assembly working group, and decisions made at the committee level are usually forwarded to the Assembly in its formal capacity, for public hearing. When a resolution or ordinance is heard by the full Assembly, the public has an opportunity to testify and try to influence the Assembly's final vote. In small town politics the public can impact the vote of Assembly members. When an Assembly member is faced with a room full of constituents who are passionate about an issue, it can often mean the difference between a yea or nay vote.
Last Thursday when the COW met in its work session it was not business as usual. The issue of glacier flightseeing landings was on the agenda and Assembly member Dale Anderson produced a letter for discussion. The letter was a surprise not only to the audience, but to some Assembly members as well. Debate followed, and the Wheeler/Pillifant amendments were voted down. Rather than forwarding the letter to the full Assembly, the COW then voted to accept the letter and forward it to Juneau District Ranger Pete Griffin as the CBJ's official stance on the number of allowable icefield landings.
Members of the Peace and Quiet Coalition and others interested in reducing flightseeing noise have requested a letter giving direction to the U.S. Forest Service for the last two years. In the past, the Assembly failed to weigh in on the issue, much to our dissatisfaction. Now suddenly, without prior notice, here was a letter to the U.S. Forest Service! COW Chairman Ken Koelsch later told a reporter the letter was "a compromise, well-crafted to include many aspects of the community." (Juneau Empire, Dec. 18).
A compromise would have considered the wishes of the community. In regard to allowable icefield landings, it is my understanding that the community wants a reduction in flightseeing noise. In order to accomplish that, the community has said it wants fewer icefield landings or relocation of current heliports.
The results of the Juneau Tourism Management Plan web polling states that the majority of people are bothered by flightseeing noise, at least to some degree.
A compromise would have allowed the people to have a voice at the table. The Juneau Tourism Management Plan, currently under construction, promises us a voice at the table (see Juneau Tourism Management Plan, Activity 7, Public Consultation). Production of a letter moments before the meeting is not consultation. To take up a letter that was not even included in the packets of Assembly members prior to the meeting tells me that the author, Assembly member Dale Anderson, did not want his fellow Assembly members to have time to scrutinize the letter. And to take up a letter at a meeting that does not allow public testimony certainly does not "include many aspects of the community," as COW Chairman Koelsch states.
The COW action on the letter to the U.S. Forest Service is a slap in the face to those of us who have worked on this issue for so many years. It is an example of local government at its worst. And this, in the wake of an Assembly campaign where every candidate said they would "listen" to their constituents!
I only hope that Mr. Griffin and the U.S. Forest Service are more concerned with public sentiment regarding flightseeing noise than the Juneau Assembly has been. The public is upset and angry about flightseeing noise and they want the issue resolved, whether by decreased numbers of flights or by removal of the flightseeing nuisance to nonresidential areas.
Until we have a plan in place, it is unconscionable to allow increased glacier landings. It is my hope that the U.S. Forest Service will reduce the number of allowable landings until the noise issue is settled, and disregard the hasty and ill-conceived actions of the Juneau Assembly.
Kim Metcalfe is a Juneau resident who is active in flightseeing noise abatement issues.