Governor signs bill removing Homer’s port, harbor from critical habitat area

With the capital budget and what it means for the southern Kenai Peninsula still to be determined, other legislative action affecting the area is finding approval in Juneau.

Passing both the Senate and House and signed March 26 by Gov. Parnell was a bill removing Homer’s port and harbor and municipal lands from the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area. 

“In a nutshell (Senate Bill) 148 is about recognizing the balance between jobs and environmental protection,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

Katie Koester, economic development coordinator for the city of Homer said the bill “basically exempts Homer Port and Harbor from the critical habitat area, which means that jack-up rigs can be moored at the Deep Water Dock.”

It also eliminates some permitting requirements.

“For example, the plan says you have to have a permit to have vessels more than 14 days in a critical habitat area, which is an unenforceable situation in the Homer Harbor,” said Koester. “Certain permitting things like that will be cleared up because the port and harbor are no longer in the critical habitat area.”

The Legislature created the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area and the Fox River Flats Critical Habitat Area in the 1970s “to protect and preserve habitat areas especially crucial to the perpetuation of fish and wildlife, and to restrict all other uses not compatible with that primary purpose,” according to the management plan written for the two areas in 1993. 

The boundaries of the KBCHA, as set by statute, included the tide and submerged land of Kachemak Bay to a western boundary stretching from Anchor Point to Point Pogibshi. 

Although Homer’s port and harbor and municipal lands fall within those boundaries, the introduction of the management plan stated, “The plan does not apply to federal or municipal lands within the critical habitat areas.”

In January, the Homer City Council passed Resolution 14-005 urging the Legislature to clear up the seeming conflict by amending the boundaries “to exclude the city of Homer port and harbor and municipal lands immediately adjacent to port facilities necessary for port operations, and make the statute consistent with the stated intent of the Critical Habitat Area Management Plan.”

According to the resolution, the conflict between statute and management plan caused “legal ambiguity about both the enforceability of the municipal lands exemption provision in the plan and the Department of Fish and Game’s ability to permit certain legitimate activities at the port, most notably oil and gas drill rigs attempting to dock for the purpose of maintenance and repair.”

Such a situation occurred in 2012, when Buccaneer Energy’s jack-up rig Endeavour-Spirit of Independence was undergoing repairs at the Deep Water Dock. A storm resulted in a decision to lower the rig’s legs to provide stability. The Department of Fish and Game historically did not require special area permits for vessels moored in the harbor or at the Deep Water Dock, but lowering of the rig’s legs changed the scenario from the vessel being moored to being stored, a situation prohibited by the critical habitat management plan.

The jack-up rig remained at the dock from October 2012 through April 2013. An analysis prepared by Northern Economics at the request of the Homer City Council indicated Buccaneer’s direct spending during that time within the Kenai Peninsula Borough totaled $3.8 million.

“I think everyone understands that storing a rig, at least environmentally, is much safer at the Homer Deep Water Dock … than it would be in a bay across on the opposite side, so far away that you aren’t really observing it,” said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer.

Seaton pointed out that passage of Senate Bill 148 also makes possible the proposed harbor expansion.

According to Matt Alward of Bulletproof Nets, removing the port and harbor from the critical habitat area “frees up the port to be able to conduct the business it was designed to do without having to worry about extra permitting.”

He viewed it as a step toward expanding the use of the Deep Water Dock. Alward’s business is not specifically impacted by the passage of Senate Bill 148, but “as part of Homer Marine Trades in general, it definitely has some effect.” 

Excluding the harbor does not remove all permitting requirements, only those specific to a critical habitat area.

“There are still plenty of levels of government that they have to adhere to,” said Ginny Litchfield, Kenai Peninsula area manager for Fish and Game’s Habitat Division. “(Senate Bill 148) just clears up some confusion. Fish and Game understands the importance of Homer Harbor to the city of Homer. It also understands that the city of Homer already manages that area. So it just eliminates another layer of government oversight over an industrial area that is very closely managed already by the city of Homer.”

While not objecting to the legislation, the Kachemak Bay Conservation Society expressed concern about the size of the area being removed and requested the bill specifically designate allowable harbor activities.

“We are concerned this will set a precedent for this type of un-designating lands action, especially in regards to resource development interests within the bounds of a (critical habitat area),” the society said in a letter to the Senate Resources Committee.

In other legislative action, Micciche said $175,000 for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve has been restored to Fish and Game’s 2015 operating budget.

“So, that gives all the matching funds needed for NOAA and other matching grants,” said Micciche. “We had a lot of support from board members and the community of Homer about its value. … I have to say they did a really good job with testifying, email, letters and the things we needed to demonstrate that we had community support. It will help motivate me to work with the Homer community to find a different, perhaps a better matched agency partner for next year and then look for other funding options as well.”

Also added to the operating budget is a new ranger for Kachemak Bay State Park.

“We’ve worked on that for two years and are very pleased,” said Micciche. “It came from another park that did not have a need for the position and they were under pressure to remove it, but instead we were fortunate to have it added.”

It’s a 10-month position and Micciche said he will work to obtain additional funding to make it year round.

The Senate’s version of the capital budget is due to be unveiled this morning, in time for the public to review it before a Saturday teleconference scheduled for 1 p.m. Public testimony will be taken between 1-1:30 p.m.

“We divided it to the dollar, so Homer and the southern peninsula are as well represented as the rest of the district. There are some region-wide projects to look at, but the reality is that we expect Homer to do well again, although the capital budget is lower this year,” said Micciche. “

Homer Mayor Beth Wythe spent part of this week in Juneau, meeting with legislators to discuss actions important to the city, such as the funding of PERS/TRS. She also has met with the U.S. Coast Guard “reminding them how much of an economic engine they are for our community, talking to them about the East Harbor expansion and garnering their support,” said Wythe.

The 28th Legislature adjourns April 20. With reapportionment, Micciche’s district will no longer include Homer and the southern peninsula. However, he remains Homer’s senator until the 29th Legislature convenes next year.

“I still serve as a resource for the entire peninsula community. It’s important for people to know that I’m fighting hard until the 29th Legislature is sworn in,” said Micciche.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at