December 20, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 51

Planners skeptical of tree-cutting rules

Members of the Haines Borough Planning Commission expressed skepticism during their Dec. 13 meeting that prohibiting residents from cutting down trees on their property would help address issues related to the slump and ground movement near the Oceanview and Lutak areas.

Though PND Engineers Inc. have not yet submitted their technical memorandum – a report offering the engineering rationale behind land use recommendations – members of the commission and the borough manager are aware that increased vegetation is one of the main engineer recommendations.

“What I did hear from the engineer is that they are recommending that the hillside be as vegetated as possible to try to hold water and hold the soil in place. And to that end, the recommendation from the engineer is to plant trees in open areas and not allow trees to be cut except in an emergency,” and commission chair Rob Goldberg.

Commission members said they would reserve judgment until the final PND report is released, but appeared reticent during their discussion of drafting possible ordinances to prevent people from felling trees on and above the slump area.

“I’d personally be reluctant to get into this trying to support a ban on cutting trees. Because I don’t believe it’s a problem. And this is just my personal opinion. My neighbor clear-cut the upper part of his lot and it adversely affected me, but he had the right to do it,” said commissioner Robert Miller.

Commissioner Danny Gonce said he believes there is some validity in the vegetation argument, but that legislating tree-cutting could get messy.

“As a body that somebody would come to requesting tree-cutting, I have a problem with that, too. That’s going to be really tough when somebody says, ‘Well, this isn’t an emergency, but this is hindering the value of my property.’ I see some issues down the road with that,” Gonce said.

A horseshoe-shaped cleavage of the hillside cracked Lutak Road, broke a sewer line, forced the relocation of utilities, undermined a home and raised questions about the future of a new subdivision last January.

Property owners Josh and Victoria Moore, whose home was damaged by the slump, spoke in opposition to the potential ban on tree-cutting. Both said drainage issues on the hillside are more relevant than vegetation, and requested more ditches, culverts and storm drains to address oversaturation in certain areas.

Commissioner Don Turner said he would like to see the Haines Borough implement more short-term fixes this summer in anticipation of a more expensive, comprehensive solution.

“Obviously maybe there are some longer-term, million-dollar fixes. I think the very least you can do is run up there and ditch the roads and put water where it needs to go,” Turner said.

Borough manager Mark Earnest said any decision would ultimately come before the assembly, whether it be in the form of an ordinance, resolution or some other informal recommendation to property owners in the area. Earnest said the issue is tricky because what one person does on his or her property could adversely affect what happens on another person’s property, or whole group of properties.

“There are different ways to put this into effect. But you have to look at the greater good of the community and balance that with the rights of the individual,” Earnest said.

Earnest said the borough recently extended two drainage pipes which ran underneath Oceanview Drive into one of the main areas that failed. The pipes now lead to a drainage ditch on Lutak Road feeding into a culvert that empties near the beach.

The borough is requesting funds from the Alaska Legislature for the Lutak/Oceanview area slump mitigation and drainage improvements. Surveyors from PND were scheduled in town Tuesday to conduct an assessment of where and how water on the hillside is draining. Information from the survey will be used to determine a detailed project explanation and cost estimate to be submitted to the Alaska Legislature for funding consideration.

Earnest said the technical memorandum should be available at the Jan. 17 comission meeting.