Breaking Ground in 2005

Juneau moved ahead on a second high school and Kensington Mine, but road out of town faced a major setback

Posted: Friday, December 30, 2005

Two of Juneau's biggest projects - a second high school and the Kensington gold mine - moved beyond the realm of debate in 2005 and into the domain of action.

After years of wrangling and planning on both fronts, ground was broken for a new school in the Mendenhall Valley, and developers of the Kensington Mine won all of the needed permits and launched construction.

But the battle over whether to build a road connecting Alaska's capital to the rest of the state's road system raged on. The National Park Service dealt a major blow to the proposed $281 million road from Juneau to Skagway with a ruling that would mean ending the route north 18 miles short of its original mark. The change led critics to dub the project the "road to nowhere," but also cut the estimated cost.

In a parallel battle with a similar nickname, the Gravina Island bridge project near Ketchikan - dubbed the "bridge to nowhere" - caught national attention and lampooning by conservative and liberal critics alike. Alaska's Sen. Ted Stevens even threatened to resign over the project. But the senior senator backed down under pressure, and Congress took the earmarks off funding for the bridge and another in Anchorage. That left the state in a dither over how to spend millions of federal transportation dollars and leaves the fate of a number of Juneau and Southeast Alaska projects in question.

Meanwhile, housing costs continued to squeeze Juneau residents, an attempt by Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho to develop a design for a new capitol through an international contest crashed and burned, and weird weather - including record rainfall triggering costly landslides - struck Juneau.

In the city

From a water park to a new capitol, Juneau residents debated several projects this year, giving the green light to some and sending others back to the drawing board.

A jury in March selected a dome design as the winning blueprint for Juneau's capitol among several designs by international, domestic and state design firms. Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne's rendering featured a mixture of columns, stairs and a glass bulb on top of what some said looked like an egg.

Facing more controversy than support in April, Botelho shelved efforts to build the capitol. About $5 million was needed to start the project, and funding was not available.

In October, voters decided to extend a 1 percent sales tax to pay for a ski lift at Eaglecrest Ski Area, sewer extensions, a downtown parking garage and expansion to the Don Statter Boat Harbor in Auke Bay.

Citizens voted down a $26 million Mendenhall Valley aquatic center and $20 million in improvements to the Juneau International Airport. They re-elected Assembly member Merrill Sanford and chose University of Alaska Southeast professor Jonathan Anderson and former state marine highway chief Bob Doll as the Assembly's newest members. Leaving the Assembly was Deputy Mayor Marc Wheeler and Stan Ridgeway.

Amid debate over its safety and necessity, a roundabout was completed in August near the Douglas Bridge to ease traffic held up by stop signs. The traffic circle gives motorists from North Douglas Island the right of way, a complaint raised by many drivers from the south, where most of the island's population lives.

The Assembly and city officials also said they will address Juneau's housing problem by extending sewer lines and rezoning areas for higher density.

Since the second half of 2004, property values have swelled by 1 percent a month, according to city Assessor Jim Canary. The average single-family home in 2005 cost $310,000, about $44,000 more than in 2004. Juneau has the highest housing costs of any major city in Alaska.

The year ended on a wet note as record rainfall hammered the city in November. Downtown Juneau recorded 14.2 inches of rain for the week of Nov. 13-19.

Homes, streets and trails were damaged by falling trees and mudslides. City Manager Rod Swope estimated damages at between $500,000 and $1 million. The city is applying for state and federal emergency relief.

Officially, it was the rainiest November ever recorded at Juneau International Airport, which had about 10.5 inches of rain during the wettest week.

In other extremes, Juneau had six days with official temperatures of at least 80 degrees, including a record-setting four-day stretch from Aug. 9-12. It was the first time that Juneau had recorded four straight 80-degree August days at the airport. The only longer spell of 80-degree weather came in June 2004, when official temperatures topped 80 degrees for eight straight days.

Highway detours

The proposed Juneau-Skagway road was cut short in August when the National Park Service ruled federal money could not be spent on roads running through Klondike Park and land near Lower Dewey Lake. The agency considers the land a valuable recreation spot, a wildlife and waterfowl refuge and a historic site.

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities decided to pursue an alternative - ending a road at a ferry terminal near the Katzehin River and shuttling vehicles to either Haines or Skagway.

Road construction costs in the revised proposal would be about $90 million less than the original plan's estimated cost of $281 million. The state would have to spend $16 million on ferry terminals and $48 million on a vessel, according to state officials.

State battles

The biggest 2005 battle in the Alaska Legislature was over a new pension system for future state employees. Senate Bill 141 sets up a defined-contribution plan that will replace monthly retirement checks with a lump sum of money.

The bill narrowly passed in the House and Senate during a special session called in late May. It goes into effect for state employees and teachers hired from July 1, 2006.

Legislators also overhauled the state's workers compensation laws. The bill set up a five-member appeals commission to hear claims. Supporters said the panel will take the load off state courts that review 30 to 40 appeals annually while speeding up the process.

Mining

While construction of the Kensington Mine began in July, the mine, 45 miles north of downtown, still faces a major environmental challenge.

Closed-door negotiations between mine officials and Juneau environmentalists failed to produce any agreement over the mine's disposal plan for waste rock.

In September, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Haines-based Lynn Canal Conservation and the Sierra Club filed suit to block the federal permit that will allow the mine to dump its rock waste into Lower Slate Lake. The groups contend the permit violates the Clean Water Act and sets a bad national precedent allowing other mines to dump their waste in lakes. Attorneys for the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Justice pulled two of the mine's federal permits for internal review.

Despite uncertainty, the Kensington Mine continued with construction through the autumn, providing jobs for about 200 workers. Federal attorneys still have not announced what they intend to do with the mine's major federal permits. Until then, the environmental lawsuit remains in limbo.

Native corporations

Sealaska Corp. fattened the pockets of its shareholders with its highest dividend paid in recent years. The average shareholder owning 100 shares received a $500 check in December.

The pot was larger this year because other Native corporations - which share profits with Natives across the state - raked in record profits from resource development and Sealaska's subsidiaries and investment fund performed well.

Sealaska also made major decisions this year that could affect future dividends. In one, it sold a Prince of Wales limestone mine in July to a California-based mineral operator. The mine was shut down in 2002 after Sealaska struggled to break into the calcium carbonate market, the company said.

Gas pipeline

One of the most anticipated state events of 2005 never happened.

Gov. Frank Murkowski had hoped to provide the Legislature with one or more possible contracts for an estimated $20 billion gas pipeline. But the negotiations dragged on for the entire year.

In the fall, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Irwin wrote a memo to the governor expressing his legal concerns about the possible terms of the contract. Irwin lost his job, and his deputies also tendered their resignations.

By the end of 2005, the governor had a single contract proposal and continued to hash out its terms with the three major oil companies who hold leases to the North Slope oil and gas reserves.

Logging

The U.S. Forest Service had to go back to the drawing boards in 2005 after an appellate court ruled in August that it must correct a major flaw in its 1997-published land management plan for the Tongass National Forest.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Forest Service had exaggerated the market demand for Tongass timber - basically doubling it.

The judges sent the environmental case, spearheaded by a coalition of local and national environmental groups, back to the Alaska District Court, which is still deliberating.

Depending on how the Forest Service revises its management plan, the ruling could have a substantial future impact on the scale of logging in the national forest.

School facelifts

It was a big year for upgrades at Juneau schools.

Floyd Dryden Middle School completed an extensive renovation in late August. The nearly $5 million project included upgrades to the gym, band room and computer labs. New carpets, doors, windows and storage space also were installed.

After years in the works, the University of Alaska Southeast opened a recreation center in September in Auke Bay. UAS teamed up with the Alaska Army National Guard to build the $15.3 million Charles Gamble Jr.-Donald Sperl Joint Use Facility. The recreation and readiness center has numerous features to attract students and soldiers, including a gymnasium, climbing wall, weight room, exercise room, an indoor track and two extra classrooms.

At the site of the new high school in the Mendenhall Valley, contractors removed thousands of cubic yards of dirt to ready for construction, scheduled to start this year. Budget figures are still being deciphered, with shortfalls of more than $1 million still raising questions over what amenities the school will have. The district is planning to award bids in April.

Voters approved nearly $6 million in bond debt for the renovation of Glacier Valley Elementary School during the Oct. 4 municipal election. The renovation will focus on creating a more comfortable learning environment for students by upgrading the 40-year-old heating and cooling systems.

Crime and punishment

Two murder trials were held at the Dimond Courthouse in 2005.

It took a week in April to pick a jury that would find James Harmon guilty a month later in the 2003 killing of 19-year-old Maggie Wigen in Tenakee Springs. Jurors deadlocked on a charge of first-degree murder, unable to agree on whether they believed Harmon intended to kill Wigen, but they found him guilty of second-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault, attempted first-degree sexual assault and second-degree theft.

In November, Ketchikan Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens, who presided over the Juneau case, sentenced Harmon to 72 years in prison.

Ronald Smith, who Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Week sentenced in 2001 to serve 85 years in prison for killing Kenneth Ike Thomas in 2000, got a second trial in October. The second jury, like the first, found him guilty of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and first-degree robbery. Sentencing is set for January.

A man charged with setting a September 2004 fire at DeHarts Marina in Auke Bay stood trial twice in 2005. After the first jury failed to reach a verdict in April, the second found Rickey Gottardi guilty in July of first-degree arson. Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins sentenced him to serve 20 years in prison.

Emergency teams in Juneau responded to two accidents that proved fatal in 2005.

Peter Barrett, a 30-year-old photographer who also worked at the Hangar on the Wharf restaurant, was pronounced dead on March 15 at Bartlett Regional Hospital after his kayak overturned north of Douglas Island.

Jody Watson, a 25-year-old University of Alaska Southeast student and employee, was fatally injured early in the evening of Aug. 31 in a two-vehicle accident on Brotherhood Bridge.



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