Council dilemma: Public divided on beach policy

In his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” philosopher Garrett Hardin posed a dilemma. When someone uses a commonly held resource, it’s in the individual’s best interest to maximize use of that resource, what he called “the commons.” Yet when they do, a tragedy happens: the commons gets degraded.

At its regular meeting on Monday, the Homer City Council saw that philosophical issue made real when it debated introducing Ordinance 15-29, which would ban year round driving or parking motorized vehicles at Bishop’s Beach and ban from April 1 to Sept. 30 driving on the Homer Spit. In a 4-2 vote, with council members Beau Burgess and Gus VanDyke voting no, the council agreed to advance the ordinance to second reading and public hearing.

Council members David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds introduced the ordinance following the recommendations of the Homer Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, which has been meeting since October 2014 to consider beach policy changes.

Council members and people testifying raised issues like the effect of vehicles on birds and habitat, safety of children walking the beach, private property concerns, and the right of people to collect coal. 

Several citizens got to the heart of Hardin’s dilemma: Has Homer grown to the point where beach driving and other uses like loose dogs have degraded the commons of the beach?

Roberta Highland said “yes.”

“We’ve come to the point where we’ve grown enough. Those of us who have dealt with this all these years deserve another way,” she said.

Ted Schmidt said people exaggerated bad uses like drug dealing and reckless driving on the beach. Retired and infirm people enjoy driving the beach and getting closer to the waves, he said.

“I think it’s a difficult issue. I think we should use this issue to bring all parties together,” he said.

About 25 people spoke on the ordinance. Opinions were split about evenly for and against the ordinance. Fourteen people also submitted written comments, with two opposing the ordinance. 

Some parents appealed to safety as a reason to ban vehicles.

“Beaches are not roads,” said Susannah Webster. “There is no safe way for a child to do what a child wants to do on a beach.”

Another parent, Miranda Weiss, said Bishop’s Beach used to be her favorite beach and where she sent out-of-town guests, but not anymore.

“I consider Bishop’s Beach to be my back yard, and now I don’t do that,” she said. “It’s mostly because of the traffic and the parking. I can’t allow my kids to play on the beach the way I want them to play.”

A half-dozen people also spoke in support of keeping Bishop’s Beach open for coal gathering. The beach below the mean-high tide line of 17.4 feet is in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area, and critical habitat regulations allow the incidental collection of coal, much of it in prime seams like the west end of Bishop’s Beach.

Those regulations also ban driving vehicles in the critical habitat area. A general area permit allows motorized vehicles in two areas of the critical habitat on the north shore of Kachemak Bay: from Anchor Point south to Bidarki Creek (the creek below where West Hill Road meets the Sterling Highway) and from Miller’s Landing (near the intersection of Kachemak Drive and East End Road) east to the head of the bay. 

Council member Beau Burgess pointed out that people could apply for a special permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to drive outside the allowed areas.

Land above the mean-high-tide line is private property. It was being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea that prompted the Homer Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission to recommend adhering to critical habitat regulations and respecting private property by banning most beach driving. The commission considered the needs of coal pickers by allowing winter access to the Homer Spit. Chairperson Matt Steffy said to make that happen the city would need to apply to expand the general area permit allowing some driving in the critical habitat area.

None of the opponents of the ordinance addressed the state ban on driving in closed areas of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area. Most opponents appealed to tradition. Some said the bad behavior of some drivers shouldn’t ruin it for all.

“I hope a few bad apples don’t ruin the bushel. We have had very many great memories of riding the beach,” said Kari Arno.

One coal picker, Yan Kandror, spoke of how he has picked coal for 25 years to heat his house.

“I would very much like to be able to get my coal where I’ve been getting it,” he said.

Reynolds attempted to address concerns of coal pickers by adding an amendment to allow coal picking seasonally and by permit on Bishop’s Beach. The original ordinance allowed landowners to get a permit to drive on the beach and repair property.

“This is a way to preserve this group of people who have had treasured memories,” she said.

City Manager Katie Koester said a permit system for a small user group like landowners would be affordable. She said it would cost $5,000 to put in a gate at Bishop’s Beach. 

After Reynolds’ amendment became too complicated, at least on introduction, the council voted 4-2 against the amendment, with Reynolds and council member Francie Roberts voting yes.

Burgess urged caution in proposing an ordinance that lacked consensus. A supporter of a plastic bag ban in his first term, Burgess later saw that ban overturned in a citizen initiative. Burgess suggested an advisory vote on a vehicle ban.

“I would urge the council to take a step back,” Burgess said.

In the end, the council followed Roberts’ suggestion: For now, keep moving ahead.

“I would encourage us not to end this tonight,” she said. “It’s a difficult issue. I think we have to have the courage to go forward.”

After passing on introduction, the Ordinance 15-29 will come up for a second reading and a public hearing at the council’s next meeting starting at 6 p.m. Aug. 24 in the Cowles Council Chambers. If substantially revised, the ordinance would need a second public hearing.