Less restrictive beach policy proposal to be introduced at Sept. 14 meeting

Citizens riled up about a proposed city of Homer ordinance that would ban year-round driving on Bishop’s Beach and summer driving on the Homer Spit can save their energy in opposing it. 

Council member Catriona Reynolds, who sponsored Ordinance 15-29 with council member David Lewis, said this week that she will recommend a no vote on the ordinance. Reynolds said this week she didn’t think she had enough votes to pass the ordinance.

Instead, at the Sept. 14 meeting, Reynolds said she and council member Francie Roberts will introduce a new, compromise ordinance that would ban driving east of the Bishop’s Beach parking lot and west of the Mariner Park parking lot. The area east of the Bishop’s Beach parking lot to Beluga Slough was designated a pedestrian zone in the 2007 Beach Policy, but the recommendation has been widely ignored by drivers.

“It just creates a large area of pedestrian only, nonmotorized zones,” Reynolds said of her new ordinance. “Now people if they’re looking for coal, they can access it on the left of the Spit or, where the best coal is, to Bishop’s Beach on the right.”

When Ordinance 15-29 was introduced at the Aug. 10 meeting, speakers split almost evenly in speaking for or against it. Many supported keeping Bishop’s Beach open as a traditional coal gathering area. Reynolds introduced an amendment to allow motorized vehicle use to gather coal, but that amendment failed.

Because the ordinance is on the agenda for a public hearing and second reading, it cannot be withdrawn. People can speak on the issue at the public hearing. Out of respect for people’s time and who might want to speak against something likely to be defeated, Reynolds said she wanted to let people know of her intent to recommend the ordinance be voted down. Reynolds and Roberts were still working with City Manager Katie Koester and the city attorney to write the new ordinance, but Reynolds said she did not think it would be ready for the agenda deadline of Wednesday this week.

The new ordinance also would add another restriction: a 10 mph speed limit on driving on the beach. That also would address safety issues like reckless driving — people spinning brodies, for example. 

“That was my intention with thinking 10 mph. That is a slow speed,” Reynolds said. “It’s still fast enough if you’re going from A to B to access your property or gather coal.”

Reynolds also said she would include in the new ordinance proposed amendments to Title 19 of city code regulating beach use. Those changes were recommended by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission as part of a 9-month process to review city beach policy. 

Those changes better define terms like “berm” and apply city park rules to the beaches. The changes were part of a large packet presented to the council by the parks and recreation commission at a June 29 work session. The proposed changes are on pages 487-489 of the June 29 packet.

Ordinance 15-29 addressed a point raised by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission: that under state law, motorized vehicles are prohibited in the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area. That area is defined as being below the mean high water mark of a 17.4 tide. Above that is private property. 

At Bishop’s Beach, because a property owner just west of the parking lot has blocked off his property with boulders, including near the 17.4-foot tide line, to drive west means driving in the critical habitat area.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game manages the critical habitat. It issued a general area permit allowing motorized vehicles on the north shore of Kachemak Bay in two areas: east of Miller’s Landing near Kachemak Drive and East End Road and west of Bidarki Creek near West Hill Road and the Sterling Highway.

Fish and Game wouldn’t ask the city or other property owners to prohibit vehicle use on their property, even if vehicles then went into the critical habitat area, said Ginny Litchfield of the ADF&G Habitat Division, Kenai Peninsula area manager. The state also wouldn’t erect barriers to prohibit access.

“Most of the vehicle use I have seen at Bishop’s Beach is above mean high tide where there seems to be user conflicts occurring,” Litchfield said in an email. “Habitat will continue to work with the city of Homer and the public on this issue.”

Reynolds acknowledged the critical habitat issue and said if she had the votes she would have continued to pursue that point. She said she’s talked to Koester about getting the ADF&G general area permit extended to include the west portion of Bishop’s Beach. Koester said she wants the debate on vehicle driving to be settled and get direction from the council before the city applies for an extension of the general area permit.

Council member Beauregard Burgess said in an email the critical habitat regulations don’t apply to the city. The city has jurisdiction into the tidelands, that is, the area below the mean high water mark. He cited a paragraph in the 1993 Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Management Plan that says “The plan does not apply to federal or municipal lands within the critical habitat areas.”

“In short, this whole thing about CHA (critical habitat area) jurisdiction on city beach lands is without merit,” Burgess wrote.

Litchfield said the critical habitat plan does apply to city tidelands in the critical habitat area.

“The goals and policies of the plan were adopted into law as outlined in 5AAC 95.610,” she wrote.

The issue of critical habitat and city jurisdiction came up when in 2012 the jack-up rig Endeavour-Spirit of Independence had to put legs down at the Deep Water Dock, an area in the critical habitat area where storing jack-up rigs is illegal. Critical habitat rules also prohibit vessels from anchoring more than 14 days without a permit — a huge regulatory hurdle for a working harbor. The council passed a resolution in January 2014 asking the Alaska Legislature to exempt the harbor.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, then representing Homer, helped get passed Senate Bill 148, which exempted the Deep Water Dock and the Homer Harbor from the critical habitat area. 

“While that issue is still an argument that could be made, that’s how we decided to handle that with the port and harbor,” Koester said of SB 148.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.