To drive or not on Homer’s beaches?

Next Monday at its 6 p.m. regular meeting, the Homer City Council will go from placid tidepools to heavy surf when it considers an ordinance to be introduced by council members David Lewis and Catriona Reynolds regulating motorized vehicle access to Bishop’s Beach and the Homer Spit.

At its July 27 meeting, the Homer City Council dipped into the easy part of beach policy recommendations made after nine months of study by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission. It passed on the consent agenda and without debate two noncontroversial resolutions, one supporting the inclusion of city lands in Beluga Slough into the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve and another supporting responsible dog ownership by installing dog waste-bag dispensers at city parks.

On Monday, the council could find itself facing spirited opposition when it tackles what many Homer residents consider a long-held right to drive on beaches. 

“Can we ban the tar and feathers that will be coming out by some people?” Lewis said jokingly on June 29 about the idea of blocking vehicle access to Bishop’s Beach. The parks and recreation commission made its recommendations then in a presentation at a work session.

Lewis and Reynolds’ ordinance will follow recommendations made by the commission and ban year-round access to Bishop’s Beach from Beluga Slough west and restrict vehicle use to the winter (Oct. 1-March 31) on the Kachemak Bay side of the Homer Spit from Beluga Slough east to a spot opposite the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon.

The council will face a dilemma pointed out by parks and recreation commissioners at their June 29 presentation. Although the city has municipal authority into the tidelands, the mean high water line of 17.4 feet sets a boundary between the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area and private property. Under state law, off-road use of motorized vehicles is allowed only by special permit in the critical habitat area.

A general area permit allows motorized use 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. The area in between, including Mud Bay, the Homer Spit and Bishop’s Beach, is closed to motorized use below the mean high water line in the critical habitat area.

“In essence, they’re (the city) giving people access to break the law,” said Deb Lowney, a parks and recreation commissioner. “You’re either on private property or you’re driving illegally on critical habitat.”

The city does own much of the land along the Spit where winter driving for gathering coal would be permitted.

Reynolds called the revelation about the state banning motorized vehicles in the critical habitat area an “aha moment.”

“They (the commission) were basically saying, ‘We’re providing this maintained access to something we don’t own and is prohibited to drive on,’” she said. “To me that was, duh, we shouldn’t be doing that.”

Matt Steffy, chair of the parks and recreation commission, said he began wondering about critical habitat area restrictions when thinking about his own work with state critical habitats in his job with the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. He got in touch with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and found out about the general area permits. A letter from Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten regarding the general area permit was included in the June 29 council packet. 

While the general area permit does not allow vehicle use in the critical habitat at Bishop’s Beach, a landowner could apply for a special permit to access and do work on property or to get to a cabin west of Bidarki Creek, said Fish and Game Kenai Peninsula area manager Ginny Litchfield. That area also is accessible from Anchor Point, but a longer drive.

In a memorandum, city attorney Tom Klinkner also considered if historic use would allow a right of way along the beach. Traditionally, before the Sterling Highway was built, pioneers drove between Homer and the rest of the Kenai Peninsula on the beach. Vacation of historic rights of way could be allowed if an alternative road is available — in this case, the Sterling Highway, Klinkner wrote.

Steffy said many Homer people probably don’t realize they’re doing anything wrong by driving on private property or the critical habitat area.

“We have to cautiously advise them it’s a right they never had,” Steffy said — at least since 1974, when the Alaska Legislature established the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area.

At the July 27 meeting, Lewis said he intended to introduce an ordinance restricting vehicle use on the beaches partly to acknowledge the hard work of the parks and recreation commission. The commission started grappling with beach policy issues after Old Town and Bishop’s Beach residents complained about reckless driving, drug use, partying, environmental degradation and other harmful activities on the beach.

Steffy said turnout was strong at meetings, with from 20 to 30 people attending. At the July 27 meeting, parks and recreation commissioner Robert Archibald told the council about two-thirds of people who spoke or wrote letters support some restrictions on vehicle access. Steffy said there also is a vocal group of beachfront property owners who are “tired of having to go down and shoo people off their property. Some are intimidated by it.”

One challenge with restricting vehicle use is enforcement, an issue raised by council member Beau Burgess. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said the city has authority to enforce critical habitat regulations, but that’s really the state’s venue.

“I don’t think we should be involved in it. It would be akin to us going out and enforcing the overlimit of halibut. It’s just not our area,” he said.

Steffy said he envisioned some kind of passive enforcement, where the city put up boulders and a gate with a key restricting access to Bishop’s Beach.

At press time, Lewis and Reynolds’ ordinance had not yet been published, but it will be in the council packet available today. It will be up for first reading on Monday, and if it passes on introduction, up for second reading and a public hearing at a future council meeting. Citizens can speak at the beginning of the meeting during the “public comment upon matters already on the agenda” portion.

“I’m hoping that as this comes across the plate, we have a larger turnout,” Steffy said. “The more public input, the more informed decision.”