August 23, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 34

Coastal program on ballot Tuesday

Haines voters will cast ballots in a statewide primary election Tuesday that will determine the fate of an effort to restore the state’s coastal zone management program.

A second ballot initiative would raise the maximum residential property tax exemption from $20,000 to $50,000.

Voters also will cast ballots for candidates for Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and for candidates seeking to represent Haines in the Alaska Legislature. All four, major-party legislative candidates are running unopposed in the primary election.

Local polls are at the Mosquito Lake Firehall and the American Bald Eagle Foundation. They’re open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Haines Borough Assembly in January expressed support for restoration of the the state’s coastal zone management program. The program started in 1977, was revised in 2003 by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, and expired in 2011. Alaska legislators for two years have failed to reach agreement on how to replace it.

Supporters of the ballot initiative, including former Gov. Tony Knowles, say it’s needed to give the state a voice in federal decision-making affecting Alaska’s coastal areas.

Opponents, including Murkowski, say the change would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. They say the statewide board to be created under the proposal would be too powerful and the program would effectively delay projects and cost jobs.

The Anchorage Assembly, Wasilla City Council and Mat-Su Borough oppose the initiative. Boroughs supporting the measure include North Slope, Northwest Arctic and Kodiak Island.

Willis Lyford is a spokesman for the opponents. Under the initiative, Alaska would see a “wholly new regulation regime,” including a new coastal policy board “unresponsive to voters and the Legislature.”

The initiative is unclear and defining it will result in lawsuits and uncertainty and delays for new and existing projects, he said.

The program would delegate authority to a 13-member board appointed solely from a list of candidates sent to the governor ,Lyford said. “Once on the board, they don’t have to be responsive to anyone,” he said, saying the board would be more powerful than one that existed before Murkowski’s changes.

Under Murkowski’s changes, decisions were shifted from a board to the Department of Natural Resources and they had to be made in 90 days. The process before Murkowski was “cumbersome,” he said. “People involved with it at the time said it was dysfunctional. It created lawsuits and uncertainty.”

Lyford deflected criticism that opposition funding comes largely from Outside corporations. “These are companies that employ tens of thousands of Alaskans. They employ your neighbors. They have a stake in Alaska. They’d be derelict if they sat on their hands.”

“There is a lot of coast in Alaska that needs to be protected. But the cure is worse than the disease,” Lyford said.

Backers of the measure say an Alaska Coastal Policy Board would be comprised of nine public members nominated by coastal districts and appointed by the governor, and four state agency commissioners. The board would have authority only for determining whether projects are consistent with coastal management plans drawn up by local governments, they said. Project permitting would still be by agencies.

Initiative supporter and state Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, a former attorney for the state’s coastal management program, said that during her five years of work for the program before Murkowski’s changes, only five decisions by the coastal zone board, of thousands made, went to court.

Under the proposed program, Alaska’s governor can remove board members for cause. Also, the proposed program streamlines the pre-Murkowski one by establishing that an administrative officer, rather than the entire board, would hear appeals, Kerttula said. Regulatory changes to the program could still be made by the Alaska Legislature, she said.

The pre-Murkowski coastal management program ushered in development on the North Slope and throughout the state, she said. “This program is not a veto, but it gives communities and the state a direct say on what happens in coastal areas.”

By serving as a clearinghouse for permitting, coastal zone management helps identify and resolve potential conflicts and coordinate coastal project reviews by the permitting agencies, Kerttula said. “It’s a really good way for Alaskans to have involvement in decisions being made about their backyard. Without it, we’re having delays in getting permits.”

According to the website of initiative supporters, “coastal management is the only program that requires federal agencies to listen to and work with the state and local communities to resolve Alaska’s concerns before approving federal permits and activities in the coastal area.”

Opponents of the measure have outspent advocates by a margin of about six to one. “These huge corporations don’t want people to have a direct say, particularly on the outer continental shelf and North slope,” Kerttula said.

Lyford, of the initiative’s opponents, noted that some labor unions are among the initiative’s foes. “These are people concerned about jobs. They’re not worried we have a Canadian mining company in our group. This is a jobs issue.”

The tax exemption ballot measure is proposed by the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which says it would allow homeowner tax relief and give towns a tool when they look at new revenue streams. The Municipality of Anchorage opposes the exemption, saying it would result in an increase in taxes for lower-value homes and shift the tax burden to business and commercial property.