On behalf of Kachemak Bay Birders and as an organizer of the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project that is sponsored by Kachemak Bay Birders, I want to comment on the viewing platform and boardwalk that Doyon Ltd. presented at the Jan. 3 Planning Commission Special Meeting. My comments only address the potential impact that this project might have on local bird populations and habitat as well as opportunity for birding.
First, Kachemak Bay Birders was formed by Homer area birders in 2008 to provide a local organization “to promote the enjoyment and protection of Kachemak Bay native birds and their habitat through citizen science, field trips, education and stewardship.” A key citizen science project we initiated in 2009 is the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project. The main purpose of this citizen science project is to attain a better understanding of the status of shorebird populations in the Kachemak Bay area, particularly during spring migration, and to add to our enjoyment of watching shorebirds. In our 15 consecutive years of shorebird monitoring, we have achieved “one of the most well-covered sites in the hemisphere for ISS” (source: International Shorebird Survey Newsletter, Sept. 201 Site Highlight; Kachemak Bay, Alaska). This database becomes more valuable as climate change becomes more apparent. It needs to continue.
Our monitoring protocol is based on observing the spring migration of shorebirds in the Kachemak Bay area (and the Anchor and Kasilof rivers) once every five days, starting in mid-April, and continuing for nine sessions ending in late May. Teams of experienced birders are assigned to sites where they identify and count all species of birds seen over a two-hour period, as well as any disturbances, such as raptors hunting shorebirds and loose dogs. Last year, 64 volunteer birders participated in one or more sessions. One of the sites on the Homer Spit is (or was) the Lighthouse viewing platform. This elevated platform provided an excellent opportunity to monitor, with spotting scopes, all birds that use Mariner Park Lagoon during our monitoring session. But, as you know, that viewing platform has recently been taken down by the new property owner, Doyon Ltd.
Apparently, Doyon was not aware of the importance of this viewing platform to our shorebird monitoring project, or how popular it is during the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, or how many residents and visitors use the platform to watch shorebirds and waterfowl feed and rest as well as sandhill cranes that nest not far from the platform. Homer birding excels; eBird says that of the 2,409 hotspots in the State of Alaska, the Homer Spit ranks #17 in terms of number of species with 197 and that Mariner Park Lagoon ranks #20 on the Kenai Peninsula with 142 species. At the City of Homer Planning Commission Special Meeting on January 3, Doyon attempted to make up for their lack of due diligence by offering an alternative viewing platform plus a boardwalk around the outer perimeter of the fill area. But as one of the monitors assigned to this site, I think they demonstrated a lack of understanding about birding and Homer’s birding community.
Doyon proposes to add a “viewing platform” right next to the west side of the hotel. The problem is where they propose to build this is nowhere near the ideal location where the platform used to be. There is no “view” there. Being set back from the fill area, it will not be possible to observe shorebirds that feed in the shallow ponds right below where the pizza restaurant used to be. Also, without clearing a lot of neighboring trees, there will be limited view of the shallow ponds to the west where shorebirds and waterfowl feed. Observation of the nesting cranes is questionable. Our ability to observe birds from this renown site will clearly be compromised.
In addition, it is hard to judge the size of the viewing platform, but it doesn’t look big enough to accommodate a group, which is what is needed during the shorebird festival and for classes.
Secondly, Doyon doesn’t appear to recognize some of the user problems that might be associated with the boardwalk. For instance, it is not clear how wide the trail will be. Considering that the best bird viewing will be from the boardwalk, not the platform, it doesn’t appear that the trail will be wide enough to accommodate both a line of spotting scope tripods and hikers and bikers who use the trail. Also, where is the trailhead? It isn’t clear where birders who want to use the platform will park their vehicles or even how they will be able to access the platform without going through the hotel.
The boardwalk seems to ramp down to the marsh level. This will bring trail users (and their dogs) within a few feet of the shallow ponds that shorebirds use for feeding. This disturbance will certainly result in flight by shorebirds and could eventually lead to birds abandoning this feeding area. This wasn’t a problem with the previous viewing platform, which was several feet above the marsh level, that the birds seemed to tolerate.
Although the boardwalk will be on Doyon property, it is not clear if they are ready to assume the responsibilities for trail maintenance or deal with inevitable user conflicts. If Doyon wants to get a taste of setting trail user policy in Homer, they should review the extensive public hearing record in 2014 when the City of Homer reviewed its beach policy.
Another problem with the proposed boardwalk is that according to the site plan that Doyon presented at the Jan. 3 meeting, it is outside the Army Corps permit line. This seems to indicate that it may be within the intertidal area that falls under the jurisdiction of ADF&G’s Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area and may require a Special Area Permit (5 AAC 95.700). This permit is needed for any “excavation, surface or shoreline altering activity, dredging, filling, draining, or flooding” that might be needed for boardwalk construction. Doyon needs to be aware that the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area is their adjoining neighbor, and its intent is to protect fish and wildlife populations and habitat.
Thirdly, the three triplex condos that Doyon wants to build on the edge of the fill area might look fine from the narrow view of a piece of paper but will be garish when matched with the neighborhood. Every other residence built on the edge of Mariner Park Lagoon is modestly setback from the shore. Regardless of how attractive the design of these condos may be, they will not blend.
Not allowing any condo setback from the boundary of the Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area could displace shorebirds from feeding at the shallow ponds at the base of the bluff. The congestion shown in the plan would be more appropriate for a bustling coastal city than a cosmic hamlet. Furthermore, it appears as if the condos will block the view from the hotel of the Homer Spit landscape and its wildlife.
A lot of objections to the hotel might be lessened if Doyon were to drop the idea of having condos and make this open space for hotel guests and viewing platform users. This would allow the boardwalk to be built on top of the fill rather than in the marsh, which should be more cost-effective for Doyon and avoid human traffic close to where shorebirds feed. Also, retaining the openness between the hotel and Mariner Park Lagoon would be more fitting.
During the meeting, a representative of Doyon mentioned that they will be hiring a consultant to delineate the wetlands based on vegetation. The problem with this is that the area near where the viewing platform used to be is often locked up in ice and snow until mid-April. Is Doyon going to wait that long before making key decisions on wetlands? Apparently, Doyon is not aware that Mariner Park Lagoon wetlands have been studied numerous times before and that information already exists. I would suggest reading over ADF&G’s Kachemak Bay Management Plan for starters. What might prove most useful to Doyon is NOAA’s ShoreZone project which provides detailed analysis and aerial photos of the nation’s coastline, including Kachemak Bay, which was completed a couple of years ago with assistance from the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve based here in Homer.
In summary, it is encouraging that Doyon now realizes the community importance of having a viewing platform as part of their hotel complex. But I think they just saw the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding its purpose and the biological, geologic, and cultural values of Kachemak Bay that the site should highlight, perhaps as an ecolodge. These values are achieved by building better, not bigger. This would blend with Homer.
Note: This is slightly edited from a letter submitted to the Homer Planning Commission.
George Matz has been a Homer resident for the past 20 years. He has been active in conservation issues and organizations as well as citizen science projects. A key interest he has is bird monitoring. He has organized the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Monitoring Project for the past 15 years and the Kachemak Bay Sea Duck Survey the past three years.