March 10, 2011 |

Assembly OKs 2,600 skier-days

After a fifth public hearing to discuss a revised helicopter skiing ordinance, the Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday adopted an ordinance that would permit up to three operators to share a 2,600 skier-day limit.

The ordinance passed 5-1, with member Greg Goodman opposed. He said the ordinance was "on the right track," but still flawed.

Borough manager Mark Earnest will be responsible for allocating skier days to Alaska Heliskiing and Southeast Alaska Backcountry Adventures (SEABA). Alaska Mountain Guides (AMG) applied for a heli-skiing permit last year, but the assembly hasn’t taken action on the request.

Earnest said the skier-day maximum would be a "hard cap," so operators won’t be able to request more days during the season. The ordinance lists a few of the factors to be considered when making allocations, such as the quality of operating and safety plans; economic impact on the permittee; historic use of skier days; past safety record; and the applicant’s past record of compliance.

"I think the borough assembly should be the one to set the skier-day limit," said Rob Goldberg, member of a mayor-appointed heli-skiing work group. "Right now, it has in here that the manager will set it, and I think that it puts the manager in an impossible position. Whatever number the manager chooses, the manager is going to get flack from one side or the other."

He said the assembly, as an elected body, should fill that role.

The most recent allocation of skier days was 750 for Alaska Heliskiing and 450 for SEABA. Photographer days will be lumped into skier days under the new ordinance.

The agenda for the Tuesday, March 22, assembly meeting at the Haines Borough Public Library has not been set, but borough clerk Julie Cozzi said she expects it will include possible approval of AMG’s permit.

Scott Sundberg of SEABA at Tuesday’s meeting said he was "pretty happy" with the ordinance.

"It lets me continue to operate at my current level, which is barely making money, barely keeping my guides employed, keeping the heli-ski industry afloat here in Haines so we can have sales tax and things like that, things that government needs to keep the business running," Sundberg said.

Much of Tuesday’s heli-skiing discussion centered on member Jerry Lapp, who was in the process of selling 33 Mile Roadhouse as of press time Wednesday and has said the heli-skiing industry should be "managed," not "regulated to death."

"The perception of a conflict of interest can be as damaging to a process as an actual conflict of interest," said Joe Ordonez, heli-skiing work group member. "Even if it’s technically legal for Jerry Lapp to vote on this issue, I think he should exclude himself, because of his close-knit connection to the industry."

The work group did not reach consensus on several issues.

Lapp on Tuesday said the sale of 33 Mile Roadhouse was "a done deal," but the sale had not closed.

Goodman said Lapp shouldn’t vote on the ordinance until the sale was complete.

Cozzi said a conflict of interest occurs when a member has a "substantial" personal or financial interest in a vote.

Mayor Jan Hill, who phoned into the meeting from Juneau, said she supported Lapp’s involvement and cited other assembly members’ businesses that profit from heli-skiing.

"The fact that you haven’t signed on the dotted line sounds like it’s merely a detail," Hill said.

Lapp said two attorneys had stated he did not have a conflict. "Sure, we do benefit from it, but so does everyone else that has a business in this town," he said.

The assembly did not take a vote on Lapp’s participation.

"I’m not feeling any love here, so I’m just going to let it drop," Goodman said.

Earnest said the ordinance could be re-examined after the season.

Nine people commented at Tuesday’s public hearing.

Resident George Figdor suggested the borough use a professional facilitator to reach "a hard-earned consensus" and strengthen the work group’s efforts.

"I think we need a model, because we’re going to have these issues come up over and over again, and we need a model that didn’t fail, but one that succeeded," Figdor said.