January 27, 2011 |

Assembly renews SEABA permit

The Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday voted 6-0 to renew a commercial permit for Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA) following lengthy discussion on how the business should be penalized for exceeding its skier day limit.

In lieu of a penalty or probation, the company will have to come before the assembly again for its 2012 permit. SEABA must submit its renewal application by Oct. 3.

"I realize that SEABA did make a mistake, you might call it, but if they were really dishonest and were wanting to hide this, they could have not even declared that, and no one would notice it," said member Jerry Lapp. "They came forward and said, ‘Okay, we went over our days.’"

Some of the 20 residents who testified on the permit asked that it be denied, but most spoke in support.

Nick Trimble of SEABA said his company had expected a larger allocation of skier days last season, when the borough-wide cap was increased 200 skier days to be shared between Alaska Heliskiing and SEABA.

"We requested 600 days," Trimble said. "We didn’t get our permit until Feb. 23, and then in March, halfway through our season, we got our letter stating how many skier days we were allotted, and we realized that we were only allotted the initial 350 that we had, plus half of the new 200 (for a total of 450)."

He said SEABA then contacted the borough for assistance, but a response was delayed due to the March budget process. The end of the season brought "beautiful, perfect weather," Trimble said, and a surge in customers.

SEABA exceeded its allotment by 100 days and was required to seek assembly approval for permit renewal. The 2011 permit continues SEABA’s heli-skiing operation, snowcat-assisted skiing and cruise visitor shuttle and adds ski-plane and snowmachine-assisted skiing.

"The assembly who first permitted SEABA did not have the advantage you have," resident Kip Kermoian told the assembly Tuesday. "You now know that SEABA is not willing to conform to the provisions and purposes set out in Title 5 (of borough code)." He said denying SEABA’s permit would place ethics over "dollars and greed."

Sean Cone and others questioned the legality of the ordinance. The borough’s attorney has said the municipality can’t regulate flight paths, an element of the existing ordinance the assembly is attempting to rewrite.

"The people who are all hung up on SEABA’s violating this ordinance need to get it through their head that you cannot be penalized for disagreeing with something that’s not legal to start with," Cone said.

Also at the meeting, industry supporters and critics testified on an amended helicopter-skiing ordinance. The most recent version of the ordinance would keep the 1,200 skier-day season limit, establish "low impact" areas with no flight limits, and allow a permit for a third helicopter-skiing operation.

In December, Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG) of Haines requested to become the third helicopter-skiing operator in the valley, but the assembly hasn’t acted on the request.

Bart Henderson called the 1,200 skier-day limit arbitrary. "This whole idea that putting limits on the number of skiers enhances the borough’s economy and the experience that the skiers have, I’d just say, ‘Tell that to the people that don’t get to come, because they run out of user days.’"

Others said the ordinance was too vague when it referred to low-impact areas.

"The idea of the low-impact areas having unlimited skier days … I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad idea, but I think it’s too soon," said Eric Holle. "I think we don’t have enough information to identify what is really a low-impact area, and what is not a low-impact area."

A mayor-appointed working group has considered changes to a map for helicopter skiing but hasn’t yet made recommendations on what should be low-impact areas. That group’s next meeting tentatively has been scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, in the assembly chambers.

Group member Rob Goldberg told the assembly possible map changes would add 135 more square miles to the 150 square miles allowed for heli-skiing. The map of ski areas cuts off the bottoms of some mountains but skiers have to go to the bottoms for a pick-up, he said.

The working group is expected to further discuss flight paths and whether AMG should be awarded a permit. Heli-skiing is set for assembly discussion Tuesday, Feb. 8, when a third public hearing on the amended ordinance will be held.