Point of View: Collaboration with community needed for Doyon development

Most Homer residents have heard about the Lighthouse Development Project. This hotel, employee housing, condo, conference center has become controversial due to issues related to the large size of project, compliance with city code, compliance with the comprehensive plan, effects on viewshed and transportation, and the probable biological impacts. My comments will focus on the later — the biological impacts on the highly productive wetlands and their use by wildlife.

For 25 years I worked as a habitat biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, mostly as the coastal management coordinator. My job was to oversee departmental review of regional coastal plans and projects for compliance with local and state plans. Conceptually, the Homer review process is similar to a coastal project review: the developer puts forward a project, the public gets to review and comment, and the Planning Commission makes decision to recommend approval as is, approve with conditions, or deny.

Guidance and standards are provided through the city’s comprehensive plan (general guidance from community) and city code (specific development requirements). In this case, the project is proposed as “Planned Unit Development,” or PUD, which “allows development to be planned and built as a unit, or as phased units, and permits flexibility and variation in many of the traditional controls related to density, land use, setback, open space and other design elements …” (21.52.010). However, community standards are still applicable: if the project is not “… consistent with good design, efficient use of site or community standards, the Commission shall deny the application” (21.52,040(b)).

Doyon’s architect summarized the project and proudly introduced the various firms which contributed to the plan. While they appear to have a strong design and engineering team, there was NO biologist as part of their team. This explains why their proposed project — aside from water treatment — lacked any assessment, documentation, or provisions to mitigate probable impacts on environmentally sensitive habitats and traditional wildlife use of the salt marsh.

Current plans seem to be developed with sole goal of maximum profit: build as many rooms and structures as is physically possible on a piece of land. The proposal maximizes “infill” — one goal of the comprehensive plan — but disregards many of the other standards.

A good, sound development of this size should take environmental and habitat factors into consideration upfront, during the initial planning process. What are impacts of development on sensitive marsh wetlands, their use by shorebirds, waterfowl, sandhill cranes, and other wildlife that use the area? What measures can be taken in design to avoid or minimize these impacts? Instead, the project seems to invoke a variance to almost every environmental oriented requirement in city code. Density, land use requirements, setback, and open space requirements are largely ignored. A case in point is the setbacks: City “Slope and Coastal Development” standards require that “structures shall be set back 40 feet from the coastal edge.” Four of the five condos are essentially built right up the edge of water, which in the higher tides goes right up the current embankment of the existing fill. Given the importance of these habitats, these standards should be applied, if not increased, to maintain waterbird use of marsh.

Compared to residential development along the bluff overlooking the lagoon, the proposed project is likely to have substantial impact on the marsh and use by birds. All the existing residential development along the marsh is set back from marsh, both in elevation (approximately 50 feet) and laterally (100-plus feet) by a naturally vegetated bluff. A thick stand of alders separates the development from the marsh. As a result, the existing residential development exceeds current requirements and has little to no impact on bird use.

Conversely, the proposed development will involve physical excavation and removal of the existing bluff — digging down as much as 15-25 feet — and the hotel would be built right up against the marsh reaching the high-water mark. All the associated noise and activity associated with hotel/conference center and condos will cumulatively have an adverse effect on wildlife use of the marsh, far greater than local residences.

The Homer Comprehensive Plan, Land Use, includes a goal to “Maintain the quality of Homer’s natural environment and scenic beauty” and an objective to “Provide extra protection for areas of highest environmental value or development constraints.” Planning staff’s comment on the later requirement concludes “N/A — Already developed area, no change in impact proposed.” There is no basis for this conclusion. The proposed Lighthouse Village Development is very different than previous use. A small part of the upper lot was used for an autobody shop, and much it was used for boat storage parking. The lower lot (163) — the area where five large triplex condos are proposed to be located — was lightly developed with small restaurant and lighthouse, a small viewing station, some parking, and few cabins, with abundant open space. Furthermore, the “water’s edge” of existing fill is surrounded by a thick band of alders that functioned as an effective buffer from land use activities.

At the Jan. 3 Planning Commission meeting, Doyon indicated that they will work with Fairweather Science, LLC, to provide specialized planning and environmental support services to develop a plan for remediation during construction. Construction planning is very important but does not substitute for a thorough environmental planning up front — during early project planning — to mitigate impacts through project design. Had Doyon conducted an objective evaluation and used that information to guide project design, they would have garnered more respect and support from the community.

The Planning Commission should not approve the Conditional Use Permit until the full impact of the project is assessed. Further, the commission should require downsizing the project in terms of size of hotel and its encroachment on productive wildlife habitats. Waterfront condos should be eliminated or reduced in number and include an effective buffer with productive salt marsh and wetlands, particularly to the west of project.

As one commenter noted at the Jan. 18 Planning Commission meeting, “Many of us feel that there is kind of, if you’ll pardon the expression, a tidal wave of the whole project is coming at us, and maybe it has been in the works at City Hall for a whole year. I tried to get information in October, and I didn’t receive a return call, and couldn’t get in to see anybody.” It is clear from public testimony and letters that many Homer residents, community groups, and long-time visitors feel this way. And all of us, the public and the Planning Commission, are directed to work with a process that was designed for much smaller projects.

We welcome Doyon to Homer and would like to see a hotel built in this location. We implore Doyon to take public comment seriously and commit to a meaningful interaction with the public, which extends beyond communication with the Planning Department. Please proceed forward in a way that demonstrates you are listening and want to be a good community member.

Finally, we extend a heartfelt thanks all the Planning commissioners. It was a huge amount of work for them and the public alike. The commission handled their role with integrity and professionalism. Closing remarks from one of the commissioners summed things up nicely, building from a public comment from a 35-year resident of Homer:

“… I grew up here. Now my kids are growing up here. Love this place. This is home and is where we are going to be. I do want pass on that I never lived in a place where so many people agree to disagree and still have fun living together. So [Doyon], welcome to the team. But you are welcome here. We just want to make sure we do this right … We’ll get through this and find the right solution for everybody.”

We agree. We can and should all work together.

Glenn Seaman is 49 year resident of Alaska, 25 year resident of Homer. As ADFG biologist he worked in coastal planning and led the development of the Kachemak Research Reserve in Homer.