As its own sponsors recommended, the Homer City Council on Monday in a unanimous vote defeated a controversial ordinance that would have severely restricted motorized vehicle use on city beaches.
“I think there is a solution that can better serve Homer,” council member Catriona Reynolds said in asking her ordinance be voted down.
In a memorandum to Mayor Beth Wythe and other council members, council members David Lewis and Reynolds asked that the ordinance be defeated. At the Aug. 10 meeting introducing Ordinance 15-29, public comment was split for and against the proposal to close all of Bishop’s Beach to driving year round and allow driving October through March on parts of the Homer Spit. Reynolds said later that she didn’t think her ordinance would have much chance of passing. The ordinance passed an initial introduction, but was up for a public hearing and final action on Monday.
Reynolds and Lewis wrote in the memo that they would bring forth a new ordinance allowing driving west on Bishop’s Beach from the city parking lot and close to vehicle access the rest of the beach east to the end of the Spit. It also would set a 10 mph speed limit on beach driving.
Ordinance 15-29 came out of about 10 months of work by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission. The commission came up with beach policy recommendations after beach property owners and Old Town neighbors complained that beach driving had become dangerous. The commission also made recommendations on issues like loose dogs.
Restricting access east would be acceptable, said council member Beauregard Burgess, an opponent of a complete vehicle ban. Burgess also voted against introducing Ordinance 15-29 at the Aug. 10 meeting.
In a public hearing on the ordinance, testimony again was split for and against it, with about 20 people speaking. Tim Clark, an opponent of a vehicle ban, presented a petition with about 400 signatures supporting driving on the beaches.
Birder Nancy Lord, who volunteers with the annual shorebird monitoring at Beluga Slough, urged the council to protect the east beach at the mouth of the slough.
“What’s happened there is the beach has been so compressed by vehicles it’s essentially a road,” she said. “The habitat there has been abused.”
Louise Ashman also supported an east-beach driving ban to help the dunes and berm revegetate and to give walkers some privacy. Signs advise that the east beach is pedestrian only, but drivers widely ignore that suggestion.
“Tell me we can’t have 1,500 feet of beach that is pedestrian only. Tell me that’s not too much,” she said.
Most of the land in front of the slough is U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service property or private property. Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty said at the Aug. 10 meeting the Fish and Wildlife did not want vehicles driving on federal property.
Many of the people speaking against a beach driving ban wanted to protect their access to harvest coal. Elizabeth Kandror said her family had been picking coal for 25 years. Coalers said the best coal can be found to the west, particularly after big storms.
“This is not about tradition,” she said, “It’s about surviving winter.”
Some spoke about safety concerns with people speeding on the beach. Bishop’s Beach has seen at least one fatality, with a young woman killed in an ATV accident there in the late 1990s.
“I walk in fear. There are cars spinning brodies and children playing,” said Kim Terpening. “Will we wait for a child to be killed before we say ‘enough is enough?’”
Opponents of the ban said that the answer to unsafe driving is better enforcement by Homer Police.
“If that individual spinning brodies is bothering you, pick up your phone and report it,” said Carrie Harris.
A former 2000-2001 Beach Policy Task Force member, Rob Rosenfeld, questioned if the city had the authority to restrict driving at all. He said when his task force looked into the issue, it found a prescriptive easement to the west that meant driving could not be banned. Historically before the Sterling Highway was built in the early 1950s, Homer residents drove on the beach to get to Anchor Point and other villages north.
“That road was used before the Homer road. You can’t take it away,” he said. “Whatever lawyer is advising you is advising you incorrectly.”
In a June 1 memo to the council, city attorney Thomas Klinkner discussed public rights-of-way under a federal land law, RS 2477. He said a right-of-way could be vacated in a state proceeding if an alternative road access is available.
“I do not believe that the potential existence of an RS 2477 right-of-way in a beach area should deter the city from adopting regulations that it considers reasonable for the control of vehicle use in beach areas,” Klinker wrote.
Several speakers urged compromise and a more considerate tone. Rika Mouw said people need to listen to each other.
“How can we move forward in a meaningful way?” she asked. “Looking back is not going to help. A sustainable future for those who come after us is where we need to focus.”
Ginny Espenshade said at Homer Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission meetings, people generally were considerate and respectful.
“I was so impressed with the substance and tone of their meetings,” she said. “This can divide us or bring us together. It’s not the topic but the tone.”
Espenshade later elaborated on that point in comments of the audience at the end of the meeting. She said at parks and recreation commission meetings people felt respected.
“The tone in this room is the opposite. Don’t treat the public as adversaries,” she said. “Don’t treat the media as adversaries.”
In their comments at the end of the meeting, Wythe and council member Francie Roberts thanked the Homer Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission for its work on beach policy.
“It’s a difficult issue. I know how hard you’ve worked on it,” Roberts said to some of the commission members at the meeting. “Eventually we’ll get there. We’re still working on it.”
The compromise beach driving ordinance should be introduced at the council’s next meeting, starting at 6 p.m. Sept. 14 in the Cowles Council Chambers, Homer City Hall.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.