The Haines Borough Planning Commission approved the Haines Highway reconstruction project phase two design plans despite staff objections.

Borough planner Holly Smith’s and public facilities director Brad Ryan’s recommendation comes after the Chilkat Access Working Group identified historical access points along the highway where construction will take place next spring. The planning commission and Alaska Department of Transportation officials met last month to review many of the concerns, and DOT complied with most of them—but not all, including several historical river access locations.

Ryan listed three reasons to withhold approval of the project, including non-compliance with the Chilkat Access Working Group recommendations, the borough’s comprehensive plan, and DOT’s Final Revised Economic Assessment which states that the project will improve recreational access.

“The commission’s non-approval should include a stated opportunity for DOT to achieve local approval by providing pullouts historically used along the highway, maintaining historical river access along (the highway) and replacing access points proposed for removal with new ones,” wrote borough planner Holly Smith to the commission.

Smith also offered an alternative plan to approve the project with conditions, including collaborating with tour operators to develop consistent road closure schedules, and that all design, construction and improvements be in compliance with the approved plan set.

According to state law, the planning commission must review and approve the project in consultation with borough staff and the state.

Fisherman Ryan Cook accused borough staff of trying to shut down the project on social media, and a handful of residents attended the meeting to urge the commission to approve the project. Smith wrote a memo that was handed out at the meeting explaining the recommendation.

Ryan said staff didn’t think the commission’s non-approval would shut down the project because state law contains a provision for the state to bypass local approval by obtaining a waiver from the governor.

“Borough staff would not have made this recommendation if we thought there was a serious risk of losing the highway improvements,” Smith wrote in a memo. “If new information comes to light that suggests a ‘non-approval’ would impair the project to such a degree that it would be halted, then we would suggest that the commission approve the plan set as is.”

River access sites that will go away after phase two of the project include areas along the road where vehicles pull over to park such as 12.5 Mile, 14.5 Mile and others. Commercial rafting owners are also concerned about losing access to several pullouts including 19 Mile, an area where the road will be raised by 20 feet to mitigate landslides, because they’ll lose access to the Tsirku. DOT said they’ll make 20.5 Mile available, a space Haines Rafting Company owner Andy Hedden said is a non-starter for the industry.

“The industry really hinges, and I mean that, it’s critical that those access points are left available and 19 Mile is somewhat problematic,” Hedden said.

Resident George Campbell said the project complies with both the borough code and the comprehensive plan and should be approved.

“If you have issues with some of those little things, and it is (little), the big picture, is that it’s a $60 million project,” Campbell said.

Haines Chamber of Commerce executive director Tracey Harmon read a letter from the chamber board. “The chamber believes that it is critical for the planning commission to approve this project, because a “no vote” could potentially put funding that is in place for the 2019 fiscal year into jeopardy.”

Jim Scholl, DOT environmental analyst, told the commission that the project provides access to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and that Alaska State Parks instructed DOT to block access to certain access points due to lack of funding to maintain them.

“I believe we did everything we could to change from our original stance in the final revised EIS and we opened up a lot of those waysides, the ones that we could,” Scholl said. “A lot of those waysides, the DNR recommendation was to cut them off because they did not want to pick up the garbage. They couldn’t maintain those access points. Some of those we’ve opened up now.”

Planning commissioner Donnie Turner said the commission’s job was to make a recommendation based on whether or not the project meets code. He made a motion to approve the project with conditions that the manager continues working with DOT on access points, a motion the commission unanimously approved.

Commission chair Rob Goldberg said none of the commissioners want to shut down the highway project, and that now is the opportunity to ask for everything they want for the benefit of residents. He praised DOT officials for working with the borough. “This is by far the most responsive that DOT has been to the concerns of residents of the borough,” Goldberg said of his 16 years on the commission.

After the meeting Hedden told the CVN he was “baffled” by the commission’s decision, and hoped that the body would have approved the project with specific conditions. “I’m disappointed that the planning commission was not willing to put any conditions on it when it was their rightful place to do it and reasonable to expect some small concessions,” Hedden said.

Scholl told the CVN this week that in his 25 years of working with DOT he’s never seen a planning commission not give local concurrence to a project. He said he couldn’t speculate as to whether not approving the project would shut it down, but that it would likely impact funding in some way.